The Shadow of Chernobyl: a visit to Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

It has been something of a lifelong dream of mine to visit Pripyat, possibly as a result of an obsession with the video game franchise ‘Fallout’. When offered a chance to actually visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and thus the abandoned city of Pripyat, I naturally jumped at the chance.

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On the one hand, my expectations for the visit were perhaps a bit too high. There was a distinct lack of irradiated scorpions and ghoul-like people with their flesh sloughing off, for one. On the other hand, I have always loved a bit of urban exploration, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone offered an opportunity like no other on this front – an entire city full of dilapidated, decaying buildings, many left as they were at the time of evacuation.


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Into the Wasteland

It takes around two hours to reach the CEZ from Kiev, during which time you’ll be treated to a number of documentaries about the incident. The Chernobyl nuclear power station went critical during a simulated ‘station blackout’ drill on April 25th, 1986, which left the safety systems shut off during the simulation. The problem with turning safety systems off is, of course, that you have no safety systems. This led to several steam explosions and an open-air fire that wafted radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

Anyone alive and in Europe during that April of 1986 probably remembers that they were strongly encouraged to remain indoors for a period of several weeks, as nuclear fallout touched down as far as Sweden and Italy. Belarus – a country that had already seen its share of suffering – got around 60% of the fallout.

Kopachi Kindergarten

If you’ve ever seen the Blair Witch Project, you’re gonna love the abandoned serial-killer-nest vibe of Kopachi Kindergarten. One of the few buildings not bulldozed in the aftermath of the disaster, the school retains a laundry list of creepy shit to make your hair stand on end. Decaying, dead-eyed dolls? Check. Water-bloated books of nursery rhymes? Hell yes. Rusting children’s bed frames, their mattresses long since rotted? You betcha. This building is a cornucopia of creepy photo ops.

Duga-1 radar array

Where Kopachi Kindergarten is unsettling, the Duga-1 radar array is just plain awe-inspiring. Built by the Soviets as an early-warning missile defence radar, this gargantuan structure was responsible for ruining Culture Club’s European presence during the 1980s. The array was responsible for interfering with other broadcasts with what became known as the ‘Russian woodpecker’ – an eerie Doctor-Who-sounding tapping that presumably freaked out many a CB enthusiast at the time.

At the time of our visit, the CEZ was extremely foggy. This was bad for most spots, but great for lending Duga-1 even more of an eerie post-apocalyptic vibe.

Azure swimming pool

Another Famous location immortalised in Pink Floyd songs and various video games, the Azure swimming pool is actually pretty notable in that it was functional until the late 90s. It was considered one of the cleanest places in Pripyat, and clean-up crews used the pool up until 1998. Fortunately for urban explorers, it was abandoned and left to the elements. The pool is now empty and a broken neck waiting to happen. Also of note is the collapsing basketball court located next to the pool proper.

Pripyat Middle School No. 3

Possibly the second most iconic place in Pripyat (no prizes for guessing number one – the next entry in this article), Pripyat Middle School No. 3 is notable for the iconic gas masks scattered around (perhaps too many gas masks to seem naturalistic, frankly). It also sports a number of school textbooks and the hollow shell of a TV which is basically top of everyone’s ‘to-photo’ list here.

Pripyat amusement park

If you’ve heard of Pripyat then this is the first place you think of when you hear the name: the Ferris wheel is instantly recognisable, especially for those of you who blew that guy’s arm off in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (spoiler alert).  

It’s a regrettable fact of the area that it’s been doomed by its own popularity: the entire amusement park is swarming with tourists, and it’s a nightmare to get a photo in front of the Ferris wheel by yourself. It’s hard to sell the post-apocalyptic vibe when three sandal-clad German tourists are photobombing your picture, probably eating sauerkraut or something.  

One man fighting for his life in an irradiated mutant-populated wasteland.

I visited an irradiated hell-hole and all I got…

No visit to a post-nuclear wasteland would be complete without a bit of tourist tat to seal the deal, and luckily the CEZ has got your back. Mugs, T-shirts, keyrings, canteens and even gas masks can be yours for very reasonable prices, and everyone can be happy that they got a ‘radioactive’ keyring from the site of history’s worst nuclear accident.

Want to see the CEZ for yourself? Sign up for next year’s Eurasian Adventure tour or simply go for the Chernobyl/Transnistria standalone tour. Those wanting to see more of the Ukraine might enjoy our sister site’s article on the labyrinthine Odessa Catacombs.

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