The Chernobyl Experience

Chernobyl Hospital Nursery

Chernobyl Hospital Nursery

Today’s guest post on The Chernobyl Experience is by Brook Ward (Website / Facebook / 500px / Flickr / Instagram):

Long before I’d ever heard of the HBO Chernobyl television series, I traveled to Ukraine to spend 4 days inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Here’s how that happened and what I experienced…..

Believe it or not, my Chernobyl trip started in Detroit Michigan. I got a call from a friend asking me if I’d be interested in going to Detroit with him to photography abandoned buildings. He called me because I’d been to Motown numerous times and he wanted someone with knowledge of the area…and I’m a fun guy. That conversation resulted in a group of seven photographers whom came from different parts of the United States and one person from Europe making the trip in early 2018. While in Detroit, the gentleman from Europe kept telling me about a couple of trips he made to photography Chernobyl. He was connected with a private group via social media who conduct two photography trips per year to Chernobyl. After Detroit, he got me in touch with this group as well.

As it turned out, a few weeks later the Chernobyl Photography group announced their fall 2018 dates, which worked for my schedule….so my son and I booked it immediately. I’ll admit it was a leap of faith transferring money to individuals I’d never met in advance of the trip. In my head, I could see the worst case scenario where we’d show up in Kiev to find no group and that we lost all the transferred money. By the way, this fear was stronger than my fear of anything inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. As it turned out, it was as advertised…..a group of fun like minded photographers who like Urban Exploration photography and wanted to photograph Chernobyl.

Prior to meeting up with the group, my son and I had a few days in Kiev to explore and photograph the city. It happened to be a Ukrainian National Holiday and we got to see Kiev in celebration mode.

Mariyinsky Palace

Mariyinsky Palace

Museum of Water

Museum of Water

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery

At the arranged time, we meet up with the group at the Kiev airport. Most of the individuals on the trip had been on this exact trip numerous times…making us the rookies. We had two guides who made all the arrangements and the rest were photographers. It was a great group of photographers, travelers and all-round fun people.

We were given flats to use in Slavutych Ukraine as our base camp. The daily schedule went something like this…. we’d wake up, eat and catch the 7am train from Slavutych to Chernobyl. To my surprise, there are hundreds of people who travel to Chernobyl from Slavutych every day to work inside the Exclusion Zone. So, we were the only non-employees on the train.

Train bridge near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plants

Train bridge near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plants

Once we arrived at the Chernobyl train station, we’d go through security including a Passport check and then climb on a bus. From that point until the train ride back at 8pm, we’d spend all day hopping on and off the bus to explore abandoned buildings in the city of Pripyat, Exclusion Zone, and at the nuclear power plant as well. That meant that everything you needed for the day (food, water, camera gear, etc..) you had to carry with you all day (nothing could touch the ground). At the end of the day, tired and exhausted, we’d climb back on the evening train (after another security check and radiation check) with returning employees and arrive back in Slavutych at around 9pm. We’d clean up, eat, download photos from the day, repack the bags for the next day, go to bed and start over the next morning. The days were long, tiring (I walked over 60 miles in those four days) and loads of fun. Most of the group knew each other due to the numerous past trips, so they had lots of fun with each other.

Cultural Center

Cultural Center

Pripyat City Center

Pripyat City Center

Abandoned Festival

Abandoned Festival

Boxing ring inside Cultural Center

Boxing ring inside Cultural Center

Pripyat Café

Pripyat Café

Inside the Nuclear Reactor Cooling Tower

Inside the Nuclear Reactor Cooling Tower

Children’s Summer Camp

Children’s Summer Camp

Gym

Gym

Nuclear Reactor Number 5

Nuclear Reactor Number 5

My son and I standing at Pripyat City entrance

My son and I standing at Pripyat City entrance

Hospital Operating Room

Hospital Operating Room

Factory Room

Factory Room

We hit up most of the popular and unknown locations. That said, below are a few of my favorite and most memorial experiences during the trip:

Gas Masks: I saw photos in advance of gas masks within Chernobyl, but I wasn’t expecting them everywhere. When I asked the guide about it, he said the Soviets were convenience that NATO (…the United States) were going to hit the area with chemical weapons. So, they gave and trained everyone on how to use them. When I say everyone, I mean everyone… adults and kids. Growing up in the cold war, I was trained to think Russia was the enemy. Seeing these gas masks, made me realize we’re also the enemy.

Gas Masks

Gas Masks

Radiation: Everyone asks me about this. Yes, the area is still radiative (higher than a normal environment), but not as bad as you’d think. Even though the population was evacuated after the disaster, many refused to leave. Today there are still over 90 people still living there who are all in their 70s, 80s and 90s now. They don’t seem any worse off at their ages then anyone elsewhere in the world.

Ukrainian people: They were nice, polite, and spoke decent English (along with Ukrainian, Russian, etc..). Like most people in the world, they’re worried about their jobs, kids, and making it through to the next weekend. I liked them.

Kiev: We explored this city on our own for days. The city is clean, safe, and full of history. We used Uber to move around from one historic site to another. It has a unique combination of architecture…about two-thirds are old Soviet designed buildings. The rest are new glass, neon ultra-modern designs, plus some very old churches.

St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral

St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral

National Sports Stadium

National Sports Stadium

World War II Memorial

World War II Memorial

Babushkas: One of the afternoons in the outer Exclusion Zone, we visited a few of these friendly ladies. They hosted us for dinner and moonshine. Everything they prepared for us was grown on their land. These ladies couldn’t speak any English, but it was great talking to them via the translator. It was a wonderful meal, good conversation and an all-round fun evening.

Babushkas

Babushkas

DUGA: This abandoned Soviet over-the-horizon radar (OTH) system was used as an early missile defense system. It operated from 1976 to 1989 and was nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker due to the repetitive tapping noises it would make. Exploring this former military installation was a unique experience.

DUGA Radar Tower

DUGA Radar Tower

Sunset at DUGA

Sunset at DUGA

Mother Nature: I knew in advance that mother nature was taking over following humans departure. But I didn’t realize how much of the city has been overtaken. Large portions of the streets, sidewalks, and open land has been recaptured. Many of the buildings have trees and vegetation growing on and inside them. It’ll still be decades, maybe more then a century, until Mother Nature has taken it all back, but it is impressive how much is already overcome. The radiation hasn’t seemed to hurt any of the animals either.

Aerial view of Pripyat

Aerial view of Pripyat

Nuclear Power Plant #4 Covered By The Protective Dome

Nuclear Power Plant #4 Covered By The Protective Dome

Aerial view of Pripyat

Aerial view of Pripyat

I know that visiting Chernobyl isn’t on everyone’s wish list, but for Urbex Photographers this is a great spot. I enjoyed the company of the photography group, the Ukraine citizens, Kiev and Chernobyl. The trip will be hard to forget and I look forward to going back some day.
For more photos on Chernobyl and other locations, visit my website at brook-ward.com.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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