[All images can be clicked to view a larger version.]
The crown jewel of the Chernobyl tour is of course Pripyat, the abandoned Soviet city. Of course this is not the first large abandoned site ever but it is probably the largest modern-era city standing empty. This is what the tourists come to see, what a city looks like after it has been sitting idle for twenty years.
And it looks… abandoned. Run down. The city is quiet—aside from the dizzying buzz of insects and birds twittering like mad. It is amazingly fascinating and I wish we had a lot more time to explore. Unfortunately, we all had to be out of the zone by 5pm and were on a tight schedule. I want to go back someday though.
[You can click any of the images to see the larger version.]
In June of 2005, Joshua and I spent a month and a half in Ukraine and Russia, during which time we visited Chernobyl. I’m a little late with the write-up. Um, sorry about that.
I have always been fascinated with abandoned places. In Spain we were obsessed with Las Abandonadas—ancient rock houses in deserted villages that were sprinkled all over the country, their former inhabitants having either moved to the city or died. In Mexico, we searched out old towns that had emptied after the mines went bust or the money went elsewhere. In the US there are ghost towns (hanta virus! Gak), or more frequently, abandoned factories or warehouses, like those that used to be near my studio in San Francisco (inhabited only by bums and street kids). The places are mysterious, eerie, and very photogenic. A glimpse of post-apocalyptic, science fiction-style doom I suppose. Your imagination tends to run wild when in such places.
The Grandaddy of all the places we ever sought out was Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian), the reactor meltdown site and surrounding 30-kilometer radius of no-man’s-land, the “zone.” The reactor itself was interesting and all but what is most fascinating to me is the history and politics surrounding the disaster, and the so-called “ghost town,” Pripyat along with hundreds of small villages that used to exist inside the perimeter but that no longer do.
Getting to the Chornobyl site, in our experience, was actually pretty easy and took but a quick phone call to check our names against a watchlist of International Abandoned Nuclear Reactor Site Spies (or whatever it was they checked). There are a number of agencies in Kiev that arrange tours and they all compete with each other citing this and that difference—of course the prices vary wildly—and they make it sound like it is actually a very difficult and complicated process to get cleared to visit the zone. In addition, they all implied that they themselves did the tours. In the end however, they are all selling you the same thing because all tours within the zone are actually handled from within by a single state agency, Chernobyl InterInform. CII has one set price for everything and in our experience, they were efficient and expedient about processing requests. They pick you up wherever are, take you into the zone, provide a guide, give you a tour, feed you an amazing lunch, and drive you back home at the end of the day. So basically you can skip the Kiev agencies and arrange a visit directly through them. Our guide laughed when she heard the varying amounts we all paid our various agencies to come on the tour and the lines of bullshit we were fed. She said the Kiev Chernobyl Tour agencies are a total racket and I agree. But we did it because we only had one day in which we could fit the trip into our schedule and since that day had been reserved completely by the agency, through the agency we went.
We met up with the CII van outside a bank in Independence Square in Kiev. There were six of us tourists and a driver who spoke only Russian. The guy we sat next to in the van was a Scottish comedian from Serbia who had spent his entire vacation in the far eastern town of Dneprpetrovsk, a large dingy industrial city in the east that holds absolutely no interest for your average tourist. We of course thought he was crazy but then we had just spent a month living in Kharkiv, another large industrial city in the east that has no interest for the average tourist, and we had rather enjoyed ourselves. He had an incredibly high opinion of Bill Clinton (every Eastern European with whom we spoke politics, which is to say nearly everyone we spoke with, did) and an equally low opinion of our then current president, George Bush (as did every other Eastern European—and Western European for that matter). He told us that the purpose of his vacation was to gather material for his comedy act. I always wondered what he took away with him from the Chornobyl tour.
We got to the 30-kilometer checkpoint and stopped. Our driver chatted briefly with the guards. They looked over our passports (like, no big whoop), gave them back, and one told us something in some language that was not Russian or Ukrainian. We stared blankly at him until it was determined that he told us (in English, it turned out) not to take any souvenirs. We were all, OH OF COURSE NOT HA HA all smiles and waves, and then we went on.
The traffic grew sluggish as we approached Depoe Bay. The narrow bridge, street side parking, and throngs of tourists caused the slow down. We weren’t stopped but going slow enough to read the signs. As we crossed the bridge, I noticed one which read “Depoe Bay Worlds Smallest Harbor.” Now this I had to see, so I pulled U-ey to get a parking place on the other side of the road, next to a family munching salt water taffy in the lee of their SUV.
Surprised by the cold wind after the warm sun in the protected car. We joined the gawkers peering down into the harbor. I have personally been in smaller harbors which didn’t even consider claiming such a title. I admit that there is a smallish harbor at Depoe Bay and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and just assume the city promoters are ignorant and don’t really intend to defraud anyone with their exaggerated claims of superiority (or in this case inferiority).
A major world crackdown on superlatives is definitely in order. Someone should appoint a task force to police these biggest, tallest, smallest, oldest, and general famousness claims of provincial towns everywhere. For the price of a single tomahawk missile we could probably settle the questions once and for all.
While I’m firmly in the not-the-worlds-smallest-harbor camp. I will concede that with a little more surf it could be a contender for the most dangerous harbor entrance. However, I doubt the local captains would be willing to go head to head with a mexican panga driver.
It seems that where ever we go the locals have some tenuous claim to some random world superlative. Cheyenne and I once trekked into the wilds of Karelia (north western Russia) to see Europe’s somethingest waterfall. Unfortunately the superlative descriptor was the only word in the sentence Cheyenne couldn’t understand. It sounded good though and everyone was very enthusiastic (Although, in hind site I’ll bet none of the people who recommended it had actually been there).
The journey involved a long bus ride, a rabid dog (literally), hitchhiking in the rain, a long expensive taxi ride, only to end up stranded in a town with no restaurant or public bathroom. We thought that the misunderstood superlative would be self evident when we arrived. However, it was, well… not even a waterfall. At least not by my standards. I’d call it a class V rapid. It may not even be in Europe. It was raining heavily and meter was running in our taxi so we only stayed a few minutes.
Wandering around in the drizzle we finally found the towns only restaurant. The worlds most isolated Ben & Jerry’s franchise. It wasn’t really a restaurant though just a cake shop with ice cream, tea and coffee but no bathroom. Drinking coffee in a town without bathrooms doesn’t sound like a good idea does it?
Fake Ben & Jerry’s, Kondopoga, Russia 2005
Kondopoga, worlds fewest public bathrooms. (800×600)
They finally kicked us out of the Ben & Jerry’s some hours before our train was due. As we trudged back to the station huddled under our Moscow umbrella we found a casino bar blaring Russian pop. We went in hoping for a bathroom and found a lone girl sulking behind the bar. Thinking it would be rude to head straight for the loo we sat near the dance floor and waited for her come over. She gave us a few furtive glances but didn’t budge from her place. You might think that when two foreigners walk into the loneliest bar in Russia it might be a cause for celebration or at least a sale. We grew restless. Cheyenne approached her and asked for beer. Bila Nich. “I can’t serve you because this is a members only club” she apologized. I use the word apologized loosely, “membership costs 500 rubles.” Huh?! I guess we know why there aren’t any customers. Cheyenne replied that that would be the worlds most expensive beer and we really only wanted to use the bathroom. She brightened a little and let us use the bathroom for free. The freeest bathrooms in Russia. Another opportunity for commerce foiled. She may have even waved when we left. I don’t know what she does in there all day but it isn’t cleaning toilets.
Kondopoga. The worlds vacantest train station until some old dude showed up and was so happy to find us there, he took out his teeth and shared his wine.