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Chernobyl Revisited – The Star of the East (Travelogue Special)

Posted by intellisg on April 18, 2007

chernobyl1.jpgIn the infamous “Red Forest” just 30 km away from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor nothing ever survives for long not even in spring. There are no roses or sunflowers; there are no geraniums or wild mushrooms. Only an endless stretch of sickly yellowed canopy. The locals in Prypyat call the red forest – the Sakura of Russia, here everything grows at double or triple the rate – from one day to the next, the once empty fields fills up – they blossom. Then, just as quickly, they die. It’s an apt description of life in the dead zone.

Biking through the red forest to the South towards “atomic city,” the once prosperous model Soviet city of almost 60,000, is a mere 15km away. We needn’t have bothered with maps the Geiger counter is already generating disconcerting crackling noises. It reads nearly 1470 micro-roentgens. A few kilometers deeper into “the zone of death” and the counter, begins to whirl off the scale. We have to proceed by foot from here, vehicles are strictly prohibited.

In the distance lies the silhouette of atomic city beyond it across a barren plain the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear stack. There entombed within an enormous steel and concrete sarcophagus lies the number 4 reactor. Twenty odd years ago on April 26, 1986, the reactor core exploded. The complex simmered for fourteen days, contaminating tens of thousands of square miles in northern Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia’s Bryansk region. It was the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen.

The fallout, 400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. Over the years, the economic losses—health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity—have mounted into the hundreds of billions of dollars

As we arrived at the edge of Prypyat a tall barbed wired fence cordoned off the city area. It too had seen better days like rows of rusting soviet vehicles which stood frozen leaning against each other like drunkards splayed out. We slipped through the fence. Curiously radiation levels here were lower than the red forest, but as soon as we climbed a platform, itchernobyl2.jpg stirred up the dust and the counter began whirling again.

‘Better get down from there,’

said Atomic Monkey. He should know, he was the science officer on this exploratory mission. I complied. We stood in a row embalmed in the eerie silence clicking away on our cameras. Like a tour through a gigantic cemetery, it’s a trip that provokes the question, “is this the end of the world?” The mood that Chernobyl imposes on the visitor is almost climatic, oppressive even. Here and there strewn all around us, remnants of the past – a ragged doll, decaying bumper cars in an abandoned carnival, a skeletal Ferris wheel squeaking against the wind – not a sign of life except for a few stray dogs. We might as well have been on the surface of Mars.

In and around atomic city, creepers grow in profusion. They grow in the ruinschernobyl3.jpg of an old hospital and outside it stacks of medicine boxes appear to be haphazardly stacked some with even decomposing trailers of parachutes. They grow along the dilapidated town hall, beside the remains of the barracks, around the hollow shell of what used to be a nursery. They grow inside the partition of apartment blocks, built in the days when the city still believed it would continue to grow on the dream of the nuclear promised and abandoned when it became clear that the great experiment had turned into a nightmare. In the distance as the sun began to dip the clouds looked dark. The day was ending and with it the wolfs howled.

“Kakh vamn nravitsa Prypyat ?” asked the guard: “How do you like our little Prypyat?” It is hard to imagine the contemporary inhabitants of the dead zone asking visitors to share their civic pride, but those who once called this wasteland home do expect praise even if they it’s a sprawling cemetery which once boasted the best facilities in the whole of the Soviet Union.chernobyl4.jpg

For Prypyat was more than just an embodiment of a nations hopes, it was the short lived realization that Soviet man had managed to successfully conquer, tame and harness nature to produce in vast quantities a cheap source of energy. The Soviet authorities fashioned Prypyat as the model city where the forces of nuclear energy could subsist along side modernity, it was a sort of show case with its modern apartments which boasted even lifts, malls, swimming pools and schools: those who once lived, worked and played here were the brightest in the Soviet Union, they came from all over Russia, united in their goal to see the dream through – well-paid, praised, flattered and fêted these Soviet heroes of labor, patriots represented the hopes of the entire communist party and beyond that cradled the great hope to the masses throughout the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.)

Walking around ghost city, around the cemeteries, around the ruined theatre, a once proud structured, complete with Corinthian columns, Leninist portico and red emblazoned star – one cant help but feel the cost of the dream finally proved astronomically high; its enough to make one stop and ask the question;

“Where did it all go so wrong?”

Not that anyone else readily admits that this is what happened either. “There will always be hope,” one of the former residents of Prypyat told me a few days later. Hundreds have since returned to ghost city around the periphery of the “dead zone,” reclaiming their former life’s in the contaminated region outside and even within the zone.

chernobyl5.jpgI soon realized the irony of it all: If your whole life has been associated with a place, it is hard to admit that the place never existed. Even if that place is widely famed for being the most radioactive spot in the world and a monument to Soviet stupidity, mismanagement and inefficient, it makes little of no difference, not to those who once called this ghost city the star of the East – it’s even harder to admit that it ought to be shut down good.

“This is our home!” 67 year old Yuri banged his fist, a touch over-dramatically, on the table. Then he proceeded to share his radioactive vodka with us and even offered a slice of radioactive wild boar meat that he hunts regularly in the red forest, to explain why recently pensioners and old couples have begun the pilgrimage back to ghost city. It offers one way of closing the chapter of sorrow in their glorious past – it helps them to move on, to even make peace with their broken dreams – as Yuri shared with us a sepia print of a young man who once lived and died here during the first few days of the Chernobyl meltdown – his only son – Vladimir an engineer, the pride in the fleet, who once worked in the fame star of the East, Chernobyl.

“They will come back someday,” the old man insisted banging the table again.

“They always come back. I see them sometimes, I do. There is nothing out there in the world. Nothing! Here is where it all began the dream and we will live it through again with or without the damned government.”

In between swigs of vodka and sliced ham, Yuri punctuates his sentences with the words, “Etuh bolshayar problyemah?” (It’s a small problem isn’t it?) His wife Olga nods silently in one corner her eyes wide with excitement or radiation sickness we’re not sure whenever her husband talks of the glorious days. When Brezhnev and before him Stalin visited Prypyat with foreign dignitaries. He was young and strong then one of the elite who were considered the classic candidate for resettlement in atomic city. Looking out of the window I couldn’t help but feel a sense of passing of a great era – sort of lingering death. A pack of wolfs howl in the distance it cuts through the conversation. We fall all silent.

As the night seeps deeper into the darkness, it begins to rain. Stepping out into the verandah I looked out across the horizon towards, the great soviet star that once showed the way for all to follow. It was so very dark. In the foreground Yuri prepared to cut his quota of radioactive firewood, his wife says – it’s a form of therapy. He has been suffering from depression lately.

Turning towards us, the once proud soviet man smiled weakly. I couldn’t tell if his face was wet with rain or tears. That I am certain was how he wanted it.

Annex:

According to our guide the radiation dose you get from a day at Chernobyl is less than the dose an cosmonaut gets in orbit for 3 days. It’s very safe though certain places require a face mask – just keep your hands in your pocket and don’t lick anything.

Two types of tours are currently conducted in Chernobyl – tourist and scientific – they have been going since December 2000. They cost between US$140 per pax which includes two non radioactive meals transport and a complimentary guide book. Please note photography and filming is strictly prohibited by order of the ministry of information.

Scientific tours are free but booking ahead is a must; the KGB need time to vet you. Scientific tours are preferred as one can explore the ghost city – but bring along a Geiger counter and some Yeo Hiap Seng tin curry.

The Chernobyl mission was conducted recently by a four men scientific team from the 130th and funded by the Interspacing Guild – its mission objective being to document first hand the aftermath of a radioactive fall out and its effects on the environment – the information will be used for a book which darkness is currently working on.

This exclusive travelogue has been brought to you exclusively by the Intelligent Singaporean and the Brotherhood Press.

(By Nacramanga, Trajan, KOHO, Atomic Monkey – Exclusive Travelogue Special Series – Chernobyl Revisited – EP 9902382 – 2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)

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23 Responses to “Chernobyl Revisited – The Star of the East (Travelogue Special)”

  1. astroboy said

    darkness must have really wanted a first hand account, real bad.

    He is always like that when he writes his stories. He always wants to get a feel the place so to speak. It must have cost a bomb to fund this travelogue!

    Are you guys still glowing? Did you enjoy the trip? You mentioned bikes, is that a 16 speed by any chance or one of those big machines? Pls tell me more.

    Bc we dont get this sort of things in ST.

  2. lee said

    Wow! Very interesting article. Wish I was there with you guys.

  3. KOHO said

    Shut yr mouth small boy. You make it sound as if the 130th had a holiday. Who the hell goes to chernobyl for a holiday?

    It was national service. The rest of you including Harphoon better remember that, only the 130th could have performed this dangerous mission to bring back a story to our readers.

    Do you really think the ST could do that?

    FYI we dont like bicycles, we used a K series 1200 cc BMW for our mission. Pls use the right word it was a mission, not a holiday!

  4. repairman said

    AB just asked a simple question.

  5. scholarboy said

    come on. You want a guided tour that proceeds at the speed of a motorized wheel chair, 100% safe and sticks to the well troden path, then go with ST. We all know that.

    You want off the beaten path, unconventional perspectives and unique travel reportage – the brotherhood press lah.

    The choice is clear – Besides they were the ones who said, “content is king.”

    I just think nacramanga and his ppl took it a bit too seriously after all.

    Nice report – very humnan. I liked the way you frame the whole disaster thru Yuri and Olga’s eyes. Gives it a soulful perspective.

  6. scholarboy said

    I think when really stupid ppl say things like, “being a journalist in Singapore is the hardest job in the world.”

    They dont realize there are actually ppl like nacramanga and his men who will actually take a interest in these words – they will go right through the word – they will experiment and simply prove the case for or against.

    That is why it is so dangerous when stupid people in power say stupid things – they will simply go down in our history books as being stupid people who should not have been in power in the first place.

  7. Tan.B.L said

    Hi,

    “Content is not king,” it is style, aplomb and panache. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just not very realistic. The truth is people dont want just facts. If it were that simple we will all just be reading multiplication tables and studying charts and numbers.Its always been that way.

    This is an excellent travel write up. Some spelling mistakes but I like the angle and the whole feel of it. To be very honest with all of you I never ever imagined chernobyl was a tourist site! Never. So you boys have certainly open up my eyes. This is what we really need Singaporeans doing the things that we all hear the ang moh doing.

    You chaps should get together a commercial advertising program to fund more of these travelogues. I am very sure there are many firms out there who are more than willing to associate their products and services with the whole persona of the bro press. I just feel it just comes as a tad macho. Perhaps next time if you boys go, you could drop me a line.

    It will be good to get a womans perspective from time to time.

  8. agogo said

    Traditionally the “specials” always has the highest readership hits. Btw is this a special on chernobyl or russia in general?

    Fantastic really wished I was there, must be a really weird feeling to walk around a city without seeing anyone. I really cannot imagine it bc singapore has so many ppl, but this is the second best thing to experiencing it first hand. I can almost sense the solitude and smell the defeat.

    Keep it up and please try not to be rude to harpoon and the rest.

  9. needlehead said

    I opened this today in the office and a few guys came to my cubicle and said, wat is dat? So we all huddled together and read. This is powderful stuff.

    I just want to ask if the gieger counter goes up what does it mean? I know it means there is a lot of radiation but you all mentioned the amount is safe. that part I do not quite understand. Sorry 🙂

    second this how does one go abt arranging a tour? Would really appreciate it if you could provide specific details along with contacts.

    I enjoyed this very much and I am sure this will certainly hit the top of the charts in the singapore blog read 🙂

  10. jamie T said

    Great post. Hits it for six, only a few Q’s: Radiation is it safe? Elaborate. Bikes, why BMW? Why bikes? I notice bros have a liking for bikes. Elaborate.

    I read every day hope u guys reply otherwise will never write again. Too embarassed. My first post.

    This will definitely hit the tops

  11. Nacramanga said

    jamie T & all,

    Here is the specs. There is a simple reason why we use motorbikes. They are very efficient getting from A to B – we dont want to waste time – if you desire a sedated trip then opt for the ST version – the bro version is strictly for adventurers.

    The K series BMW is preferred bc it is shaft driven unlike Jap models which are chain driven – this means the power delivery is smoother and for long and sustained rides it performs significantly better – reliability is also significantly improved.

    Bikes are usually our preferred way of travelling bc we dont stay in hotels. 90% of the time we camp out in the open.

    You will definitely appreciate the attributes of the 1200 in the Ukraine bc 9 out 10 the traffic is lorries and it is unless to rent one of those russian cars they r just too clumsy and slow.

    Radiation:

    Under ordinary conditions a geiger counter will measure about 30-35 microroentgen per hour. In the center of many European cities the count is roughly 25-30 microR per hour.

    The conversion is as follows: 1,000 microroentgens equal one milliroentgen and 1,000 milliroentgens equal 1 roentgen.

    So one roentgen is 100,000 times the average radiation of a typical city. That doesnt mean you are going to die, it just means you got a chess X-ray if you spent roughly 24 hr walking around in Chernobyl.

    A dose of 1450 roentgens within 6 hours is roughly the amount of radiation exposure one gets from a translantic flight – I checked it out, its true. So it is quite safe, but bear in mind a geiger counter is a must if you are wandering around free and easy.

    What you need to understand is exposure is time dependent. Hence if you are in a place that reads 1500 roentgens that doesnt mean you are KFC – it just means u will end up that way if you linger around. So move on.

    90% of Chernobyl has already been cleaned up. It is quite safe in March bc its the rainy season besides most of the really radioactive sites are cordoned off and it is impossible to access them.

    Best way to see chernobyl: Based on our research go with a scientific visa. The tourist route is BS as it takes you around but never to the place that you really want to go too. Besides the fun of going to ghost city is you get to muck around in a deserted waste land play football etc.

    There are many guided tours but the best way to proceed is by writing directly to the ministry of tourism, plan ahead approval is abt 8 to 12 months.

    Nacramanga, Team leader

  12. Nacramanga said

    Another thing make sure you bring along your own food and this includes water. If you run into the militia dont worry – American cigarettes go a long way if you know what I mean.

    You will also come across farmers who have returned to chernobyl – they offer board and lodging for a fee – bargain, we paid abt USD$10 per head – warning: do not eat or drink what they offer, its all contaminated.

    In the city do not be surprised to see packs of stray dogs, wolfs, bears and even tigers. I am serious the city center is a zoo bc it has been declared a nature reserve.

  13. peecee said

    Play the new pc game ‘Stalker’ to experience Chernobyl!

  14. atomic monkey said

    We actually used the game as a simulated trial run to plan our route. Bc there are no town maps of Pyrpat.

    According to the game developers, its about 90% accurate, but in the actual we found the distances were off by at least 50%.

    Nonetheless it provided us with valuable intelligence to recognize 80% of the buildings and streets.

    Pretty accurate. I would say abt 70%.

  15. Larry Edelstein said

    Nacramanga, according to what I’ve read, 1500 roentgens is a LOT of radiation, and will almost certainly kill you if it is absorbed over a short period of time (a day, say). Read up, boy.

    Since no one is likely to risk exposure just because they read your post, I suppose it’s not a big deal. But otherwise, I would say that you are an idiot.

  16. Atomic Monkey said

    Larry Edelstein,

    Could that be why I am still glowing?

    I really think that was a typo. Besides if your geiger counter reads anything > 500
    roentgens you would have to be a bigger idiot to hang around there.

  17. Atomic Monkey said

    Larry Edelstein,

    Think cummulative exposure. You will get it Larry. Remember Cummulative. He must referring to cummulative – not sustained time period at fixed intervals of dosage.

    That should make more sense.

    Get out a piece of paper make a mocha and work it thru.

    It will click Larry.

  18. Larry Edelstein said

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation_poisoning.

    No doubt Nacramanga was just being very sloppy in his typing, yes. Note that the Roentgen is already a measure of cumulative exposure, rather than a rate. Your hypothetical geiger counter might say 500 R/hour, not R. If that’s the case, yes, you’d be a real idiot to hang around. Two minutes of that will give you radiation sickness. Ten minutes and you’re probably gonna die. You guys and your sloppy typing…it’s serious stuff, man!

    Anyway, that’s a hell of a trip you guys took! I’m jealous. For my part I’ve always been well aware of what happened at Chernobyl but lately I’ve found myself reading about it again, over and over, since…I started playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. So you say that the mapping is fairly accurate; what about the atmosphere/mood? Obviously the anomalies, mutants, and factions are fictional. But is there any resemblance, in your experience, between your mood during a walk around a deserted village in the game, and a similar excursion in the real live Zone?

    Also, what levels of radiation actually exist off the path in the Red Forest? What about inside the Sarcophagus?

  19. Nacramanga said

    Since 2001, guided tours have been conducted to Chernobyl (admitted not via the red forest). In every case the typical exposure of EVERY tourist has been roughly equal to the radiation exposure of one transatlantic flight.

    If this is dangerous then I really can do nothing except recommend you the ST travel desk.

  20. Trajan said

    1.”So you say that the mapping is fairly accurate; what about the atmosphere/mood?”

    Mapping is accurate STALKER in terms of orientation to only main stack and reactor. Distance and the rest is out.

    Atmosphere / mood is abit like being a space man in Mars I guess.

    We played football there. I found it really spooky, but in a nice sort of way.

    Chernobyl is not exactly a ghost city. There are infact watch towers posted strategically around for security reasons bc it is considered a terrorist threat. So although you may not see them the authorities are constantly monitoring you – security is very tight. They even have an UAV that flies around monitoring ground activity 24 hours a day.

    2.”What levels of radiation actually exist off the path in the Red Forest?”

    The Red forest is infact more contaminated that the region proximate to the sarcophagus believe it or not bc it hasnt been cleaned up.

    Radiation exposure is not the issue. The main problem is the whole area is now a sort of nature reserve, so shooting and eating radioactive life stock seems to be a bigger issue. We saw alot of signs informing ppl it was dangerous to consume radioactive game. Lots of it to suggest it is a big problem.

    3.”What about inside the Sarcophagus?”

    We dont know. But there are many international scientific teams permanently monitoring the sarcophagus – we came across a Finnish subject matter expert who actually told us it was leaking bc the steel that is used to encase the contamination is just slightly thicker than the 4 or 5 sheets of A4 paper – they said if it was thicker the whole thing will just collapse under its own weight.

    There is a plan to build a concrete dome and slide it over the top of the current sarcophagus – but cost remains an issue.

    He actually has a special pass that allows him to enter the NR to even access the control room where it all happened.

    According to him it is safe. We were not allowed in.

  21. psascholar said

    Hello :),

    I stumbled on this gem of write up. Couldnt actually believe a Singaporean team actually made the effort to go all the way there. All of you must be very brave and courageous, just the sort to jump out of an aeroplane without a parachute – joke :). I just want to know is it safe for a single lady to travel there without getting molested? It sounds like a very interesting place to visit. You mentioned the whole area is now like a zoo reserve. Did any of you see any wild animals? Are there any bistro’s or duty free shopping facilities in Chernobyl?

  22. psascholar said

    Hello,

    I just want to know. You boys seem to go everywhere with motorbikes. This may sound stupid but does anyone in Russia offer a motorbike tour?

    I also want to ask why does the secret police need to clear tourist for going to see a dead city?

    Are there any toilet facilities in chernobyl? How much would one be expected to spend a day? Again it is hard to jugde bc you ppl are always either camping out or tumpang.

    Thanks

  23. observer said

    They have all gone to this little planet called Tiriana. Apparently another cyber war has broken out and every man has been mobilized. I am certain no one will be home for a very long time. Tiriana is the furthest system in their game board.

    Dunno whether there are any bike tours in Russia, but I know the guy who wrote this travelogue quite well. He is quite tough and the rugged sort, even they found it quite a challenge. He is a good friend of mine. I happen to know every single person in the brotherhood personally bc I am on record, the longest reader, so I have certain privileges even none of you have like direct access.

    I really dont think the tour should be conducted by a girl. I know for a fact those boys always move by motorbike, bc it is the fastest way to tranverse across land masses.

    They also sleep on the rough, no such thing as hotel allowances – not enough $. The author complained abt this no end.

    Hope it helps.

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