Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Chernobyl and Pripyat

My daughter Vienna and I have a joke about Homer Simpson arguing with Jean-Luc Picard. In The Simpsons episode entitled "Lost Our Lisa," Homer convinces his daughter to break into a museum so they can see a special exhibit. They enter the building but stop at a velvet rope that intimidates Lisa. Homer takes a more adventuresome view: "You can't go this far and then not go farther!" In response, Captain Picard affirms the value of limits, especially when faced with a grave threat. Thus he replies in Star Trek: First Contact: "The line must be drawn here. This far, no farther!"

As far as I'm concerned, Homer wins the argument. Thus I went to Chernobyl. I mean, I was in Belarus. It was just a one hour flight to Kiev [Kyiv, around here] and a two hour bus ride to the Exclusion Zone. And my friends know, I am fascinated with relics and ruins. There was no way I'd miss this chance. I'd walk if I had to…

Of course, "one does not simply walk" into Chernobyl. It is a highly secure, undeniably dangerous place, that also happens to be quite beautiful in springtime. So I joined three other tourists - Yasushi Oizumi and Chihiro Kino, from Japan, and Olivier Wullen, from Belgium - and took a tour led by SoloEast. During the drive north from Ukraine's capital city, we learned about the disaster - and about the heroism of the "liquidators" who marched and flew into certain death to secure Reactor Number 4, sometimes by dropping armloads of sand, lead, and other absorbing materials into the burning core.

While scientists debate the possibilities, folks around here claim that an uncontrolled meltdown and subsequent follow-up explosion would have destroyed Kyiv and likely rendered Europe uninhabitable. Is this a fact? Did the world come this close to such a catastrophe? I haven't a clue. What I can confirm is that the radiation hazard is relative. Igor, our guide, demonstrated this fact by showing us a meter in downtown Kyiv: 0.15 micro-Sieverts, which is much lower than one encounters on an intercontinental flight. Weirdly enough, the level was also slightly lower when we passed the 30K checkpoint of the Exclusion Zone. But step near a hot spot and the levels exceed measurable amounts. All the more reason to visit Chernobyl with an experienced guide - and respect the signs.

Passing the guard-post required a display of our passports and careful scrutiny of our vehicle and tour-group paperwork. We then commenced to a rigid but fascinating itinerary of overgrown buildings, abandoned villages, crumbling Soviet propaganda ("Communism Lights the Future!" "Lenin is Always With Us!"]. In one room, early in our tour, I spotted a doll covered in dust. Igor downplayed the discovery: "You'll see lots of those."

Driving further into the Exclusion Zone, we passed an old woman named Rosalia Ivanovna who was walking the road from Chernobyl City to the village of Zales'ye, where she lives alone in a wooden house surrounded by pear and apple trees. Local authorities have begged her to accept a free flat outside the contaminated zone, but she insists on staying put. Normally she walks, but today she accepted a ride.

After we pulled off the weed-pocked road and begin tramping the winding path to her door, my memory drifted back to the Dark Walks of old English pleasure gardens, some of which were outfitted with freshly constructed ruins. Occasionally, their owners would install a real live "hermit" whose job was to offer benedictions of "Memento mori" to revelers wandering the pathways, and perhaps hoping for a little earthly romance in the cool of the evening. Igor reminded us that Rosalia doesn't often chat with strangers; he assured us that we were quite fortunate to meet her. And naturally we felt gratitude as she picked us tulips from her garden and presented a bag of bread for our day, reminding us (via translation) how Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves.

Suitably inspired, we picked our way closer and closer to the infamous reactor, detouring though to visit the "Russian Woodpecker," an early-warning radar system built to safeguard the Soviet Union against American nuclear missiles. The structure, formally the Дуга-1, earned its nickname from the chirping sounds it produced that could be picked up on televisions and radios all over the world.

Today the towering device is being devoured by forest, its control stations dripping and dank. I was therefore especially surprised when Igor announced, "We are not supposed to go inside. We will go inside." And so we did, making our ways down dark corridors, lit by the flashes of our cameras and phones.

Later in the afternoon we visited Reactor Number 5, crossing a rickety wooden bridge toward the interior of a vast cooling tower. We stared at the blue sky as birds wheeled lazy circles above us, and we clanged pieces of metal debris to produce creepy echoes of our presence. Following recent rains, the ground was moist and spongy, redolent with mushrooms, and a few sun-dried bones that seemed incongruous to this place.

We then drove next to an artificial canal where Igor pointed out monstrously (but naturally, he emphasized) huge catfish. How nice, I thought, that Rosalia had furnished us with a bagful of bread. The fish gobbled each slice without taking time to chew. Once more, the "loaves and fishes" story swam through my mind.

Finally we drove to a viewing stand next to the sarcophagus of Reactor Number 4, the plant whose explosion was caused, we are told, by a steam turbine test gone catastrophically awry. Yes, the radiation levels are somewhat higher here, but not excessively so - at least not for controlled visits. In fact, most of the truly dangerous stuff is found further north of this place, crossing over into Belarus. It was all a matter of prevailing wind patterns. We stood in silence, checking meters and photographing the rusting structure built to contain the damage.

An international array of countries and companies is erecting a new sarcophagus nearby, which will be rolled by rail and bolted over the existing container. The job was scheduled to be completed by now, and even when the new sarcophagus is fitted over the old, perhaps in a few years, no one expects it to last more than a century.

Because Chernobyl is, in its own way, still a working nuclear facility, undergoing a dismantling process that will take decades, this was one of the few places where our photography was closely monitored. Igor said we could take pictures of the reactor and the new container, and the monument, but nothing else. At least from this vantage point.

We concluded the day with a trip to Pripyat, a model town completed in 1970 as housing for Chernobyl workers and as a showcase for Soviet urban design. The city was developed to accommodate 50,000 people. This was a young town. The average age was 26, with about 1,000 children being born each year. Just prior to the disaster its people were buzzing with anticipation for the upcoming May Day celebration.

When the reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, few local people understood the significance of the event. And it took two days for officials to order that the city be abandoned. To reduce the risk of panic, evacuees were instructed to pack only documents and other essentials. No need to bring more than a 72 hours worth of supplies; they would, after all, return soon. Now Pripyat is called a ghost town, which is mostly true. There are some workers here, however, and a growing population of animal and plant life who have fitted themselves to the lethal environment.

Our group stayed at a tourist hotel outside the 10K Exclusion Zone and was reminded to obey the 10 p.m. curfew. Having heard of wolves that roam the area, the curfew seemed like more than a reasonable idea to me. The next day we returned to Pripyat for a more in-depth tour, which included a police station, a fire house, an experimental green house, and several schools. As Igor promised, we found lots of dolls, and in School Number 3, a pile of child-sized gas masks. I also found a booklet containing monthly dues stamps for a trade-unionist amid a pile of children's alphabet flash cards.

I held the artifact in my hand and wondered about its provenance. It might have been from someone who lived in Pripyat before the disaster, or it might be from a worker trucked in to decontaminate the city afterward. Either way, just a quick slip into the pocket, I thought, and I can bring it home. What a souvenir, from Chernobyl! With much reluctance, I laid it back upon the pile. Just walking through the places so quickly abandoned by people who thought they'd return in a few days makes me feel guilty. There's no way I would disturb this place any more than necessary.

Throughout the two-day trip, I frequently thought about the reasons why some wags dismiss this place as a "Radioactive Disneyland." One cannot doubt the pathos of this place, the reality of loss - even as one may hardly forgo the reality that every photograph taken by every tourist (mine included) have been well rehearsed.

But given the constant crunch of broken glass, Chernobyl is no theme park attraction. SoloEast recommends that visitors wear thick-soled boots, which is damned good advice. Because I wanted to limit the weight of my travel bag, I seriously considered bringing shoes better suited for a business meeting than for this decaying place. Only at the last minute did I realize the foolishness of my plan and dress for the environment. And sure enough, with every creaking floor and sagging roof, with every breaking shard of glass under my feet, and with every scrape against some protruding jab of rusting metal, I grew ever more grateful for those bulky, uncomfortable, heavy shoes. The song in my head all day? That silly Australian PSA jingle, Dumb Ways to Die.

We concluded our tour by climbing the steps of a 16-story building to get one last view of the region. We huffed and sweated our way to the roof and stared down at the city. A breeze blew and birds sang, and we could almost imagine the forest plodding its way toward the center of Pripyat, consuming the concrete and metal and moldering paper, transforming all that dead material into some new living thing. Clouds rolled overhead and the sun glowed silver. Then Igor announced one last stop before we descend the stairs: a special treat, he said, for the two Japanese tourists in our group. A dead dog on the 16th floor. He told me that some folks from Japan claim this to be the most meaningful and memorable part of their visit. Igor mused that one guy photographed the decaying animal for 45 minutes.

Yasushi and Chihiro, however, were not excited to photograph a dead dog. I snapped some images, but I soon wished I had not. If there is any moment that signifies why some critics refer to these trips as "Disaster Porn," this was it. Nonetheless I understood what Igor tried to do. He was evoking the Japanese concept of Mono no aware, an encounter with transience that is sad and wistful but also appreciative. It would be silly of me to ascribe my own reasons to visit Chernobyl to this concept. As I lack the linguistic flexibility to properly speak Japanese, I also lack the cultural nuance to fully contemplate Mono no aware. I was a Chernobyl tourist, no different from the thousands that have proceeded me.

So I bought cheesy souvenirs and took typical pictures. I then used Photoshop and HDR software to enhance the images, to convey some sense of my experiences here. With each step, and with every story I will tell about this place, I grow more and more removed from that final glimpse at the tower overlooking Pripyat. It becomes a series of self-contained moments, anecdotes, picturesque frames. Nonetheless, I can still hear those birds singing in the empty town, and I can remember the dance of dust particles as I swatted debris from my shoes and clothes.

And then it's time to leave. To depart the Exclusion Zone you pass through a minimum of two radiation detectors. The process is strangely perfunctory. You stand in an upright machine, your head resting against a gadget and your arms raised to either side. You place your hands into reading devices and wait for barely a second, wondering if the Russian word for "clean" will glow its faintly friendly affirmation. It does, but you're not sure if you can proceed, even as you feel the metal door unclick beside your waist. Later you learn that only a shrieking alarm will signal that you've carried some radioactive particle on your shoes. Otherwise you are clean. The machine says so. Still, you will always wonder.

One additional note: I took over 700 photographs in two days. This blog-post includes a small selection of them. Want to see a few more of my favorite images? Point your browser to my Facebook Album.

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