Tourist season isn’t quite upon Ukraine, but it’s warm enough now to get out and drive beyond the city. The trouble is, one of the most interesting places is not ready for rolled down windows.
Some 90 km north of Kyiv lies the mouth of a river called the Prypiat. Weaving gently northward, it meanders across southern Belarus, past the town of Mazyr. After giving a bare little kiss to Pinsk, the Prypiat travels back southward into Ukraine again. North of Kovel, it forks off westward and reaches its source not far from the Polish border, at a small town called Zabuzhzhia or beyond the mouth.
The countryside the Prypiat wanders through is known as Polissia, the great temperate forestland. Here, myriad edible mushrooms grow in all their glory under tall leafy trees. Lush groundcover and sparkling sunbeams made this the Ur-forest. Local farms once boasted healthy dairy cows, grass-munching goats and yards full of clucking chickens.
Across the region, this was considered the place for picking the best mushrooms, varieties you could never find in a grocery store or even a market. Fresh as the morning dew, tasty as a fairy tale, which is what many Ukrainians likened the Prypiat area to.
“You could almost imagine a little elf or a pretty fairy skipping out from behind a tree at any moment,” says one elderly Ukrainian woman. “It was that beautiful, that magical.”
The inviting green landscape still looks like the perfect spot for a picnic. But the trail of mostly deserted villages along the highway is the first sign that it’s not. Then there’s the wired fence and the guards with machine guns standing at the checkpoint.
Welcome to Chornobyl.
Today this area, starting where the Prypiat and Uzh rivers meet the Dnipro, is in the restricted area known as the Chornobyl Zone. The 30-kilometer circle drawn around the atomic energy plant that blew up on April 26, 1986.
“If anyone still has a hankering to see the ‘real’ Soviet Union,” says Johannes Andersen, a Danish writer living in Ukraine, “the Chornobyl Zone offers the perfect encapsulation of that historical and political phenomenon.”
Clearly many people do. Charter buses, taxis and private cars regularly bring officials, scientists, journalists, and just plain curious folks to the Chornobyl Atomic Energy Station and its surroundings.
You can get more information about how to do this through your favorite journalist, a local tour agency, or the Emergency Ministry. The cost for a rickety soviet-era bus to take a group up is around US $30, although the ‘tour’ I went on charged US $45 per person – without lunch. It depends somewhat on who organizes it and how much you actually get to see.
Once we get to the Chornobyl Center, we’re asked to don large cotton coveralls and a white headcover. Our shoes are covered as well with disposable bags. We stash our belongings in lockers for the duration of the tour.
In contrast to the empty villages as we drove up, here, people walk around as if this were any other normal industrial site. In preparation for an official visit, squads of workers are repairing roads and fixing the landscaping.
The slogan: SAFETY, EFFICIENCY, SOCIAL PROGRESS greets visitors in the plant’s main entrance hall. In small letters below are listed the 300,000 ‘liquidators’ of the accident. When we look at photos of the destroyed Nº4 reactor, we understand what an impossible task it must have been, containing the radioactive fire and cleaning up the hot debris in the first weeks after the accident.
Our group trails out onto a rail bridge over a cooling pond. The brownish water is alive with carp spawning, females with fluorescent red pouches of roe on their left sides. They swim almost in place facing our direction, possibly hoping someone will feed them. Some already show the damage of mating frenzy, their sides battered and torn.
Among them drifts the occasional 2-meter long som with the flat mouth and whiskers of a bottom-feeder. The bottom, of course, is where all the danger lies in this water.
Our next stop is the town of Prypiat. It was built in 1970 to house what was considered the Soviet Union’s elite, the workers at the new atomic station at Chornobyl. Today, its 16-story apartment towers stand empty and vandalized. When we go inside we see that they are mostly 4-5 rooms with huge sunny windows and balconies galore. It is eerie to see the detritus of so many lives still there, dusty and still.
On the town square, a yellow ferris wheel stands, probably just the way it was left in 1986. Weeds have penetrated the concrete walks and roadways and straggly grass grows among the young budding chestnut trees.
A couple of kilometers beyond Prypiat, a “cemetery” of vehicles greets us: huge floppy-eared helicopters, tanks, trucks, buses and cars. They’re all waiting in tidy rows, like well-behaved children, for owners who will never reclaim them. Their paint jobs are standing up well and no one seems to be touching the tires or windows.
Once we’re back in the Chornobyl Center, we’re told to wash our hands, strip off the cotton clothes, and collect our belongings. We pass through a radiation detector on the way out and get back on our bus.
In the land of extremities, eating our late lunch is an almost giddily normal event. •