Below is a great piece written by one of our clients who took a trip to Chernobyl with us earlier this year.
Nine Went to Chernobyl: One Took Baggage
Nearly thirty years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, H E Sawyer takes his Cold War neurosis for a trip
The sapling’s claw is persistent.
“Let GO of me!”
Yesterday’s grasping branches were an amusing distraction, but that’s all changed. Perhaps prolonged exposure to abnormal levels of radiation fuels paranoia, because the snags now feel intended, and in the past hour I’ve become convinced I’m being followed.
But the Indian trail over my shoulder lies empty, save a solitary leaf that cartwheels, pirouettes and innocently curtsies at my heels as the breeze dies. The others are long gone, there’s no sound of them, no sound at all. A corridor of deserted apartment blocks stare down through the coppice from soulless square eyes. A face at a window now and I’ll be a gibbering wreck. This abandoned town of Pripyat, once home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, is without doubt the most surreal environment I’ve ever experienced.
I was living in a Soviet era bed sit in urban Essex when news of the accident at Chernobyl filtered through. Early May in 86, warm enough not to notice the missing pane of glass in the window, nor need the cankerous gas fire, which was great, because I could never shake the feeling the two were somehow connected.
In truth my only daily concerns were the steampunked sofa bed that concertinaed like a man trap, and the fitness of Bryan ‘Captain Marvel’ Robson for the impending World Cup. Chernobyl changed that.
With no television or telephone, the radio had become my only link to the outside world, and the drip feed of news coming out of the Ukraine. The combination of ‘nuclear plant’ and ‘explosion’, gave me the jitters; it was only a year since I’d been sitting in the shadow of Hiroshima’s skeletal Genbaku Dome with the local school children, folding origami cranes for ‘Peace’.
I was no nuclear scientist, but I knew enough to realise there was going to be fall out. Chernobyl might be a thousand miles away to the east of Romford, but that meant nothing to the wind. Nowhere to run or hide, just find my copy of ‘Protect & Survive’. I plugged the missing window pane with layers of cardboard and tape, before going to work, making a mental note to buy extra tinned peaches and powdered milk on the way home.
Sure enough, in spite of the officials who would come on the radio to soothe and placate, the cloud of contamination spread, north to Sweden, south to France, and before long, rains brought Chernobyl to UK soil. Lambs that grazed those infected pastures in Wales, Cumbria, and Scotland, would be monitored for the next twenty five years.
During those first few days I would examine the backs of my hands as though they were strangers, and exacerbate the mildest irritation. But after a week or so the headlines moved on, Chernobyl dropped down the pecking order, and I became distracted by the footie in Mexico, and the ritual hauntings of a strange young man from Manchester called Morrissey.
Never mind. At some point in the future the world would wonder whatever happened to Chernobyl, but that would most likely be when the anniversary came around, by which time it would’ve all been sorted. By somebody else.
It seems ludicrous now, peering out from the ruins of Pripyat’s iconic cafe, shards of stained glass crunching underfoot, that Chernobyl would simply go away. The cost of its containment, some US$18 billion, may have hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but the cost went far beyond any currency. As a result of the accident, surrounding lands are unfit for human habitation, and the lease back to Nature, free of charge, will run for approximately 20,000 years.
The human cost has never been adequately defined. After the deaths from the initial explosion, and the firemen who tackled the blaze, all of whom died within a fortnight, there’s been the steady demise of the liquidators who cleaned up the aftermath, and the documented increase of thyroid cancers in children across Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Initial studies predicting mass deaths as a result of the increased levels of radioactivity were radically reduced. Meetings took place behind behind closed doors, and scientists, as always, argued amongst themselves.
The only benefit from Chernobyl may have been the cessation of the ‘Cold War’, although whether that was because of the cost of containment, or whether the reality of radioactive fall out across Europe brought everyone to their senses, is unsure.
If you didn’t live through those times then I appreciate they’re difficulty to comprehend, because with hindsight, irrational fear was stockpiled to underpin a climate of fear. That this coincided with my own teenage angst didn’t help. But it was a time of, ‘What if?’, rather than today’s, ‘So what?’
During the early years of the 1980’s, the fear of nuclear Armageddon was all pervasive. Bruce Kent was marching under home-made banners, rallying the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ across our television screens on a weekly basis, in time and tune with the pop culture of the day. New wave synthsters, ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’, released ‘Enola Gay’, after the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. It reached number eight in the UK charts, and number two in Switzerland, ironic, because Swiss teens had access to public fallout shelters, an indication in itself of how seriously their neutral government viewed the impending threat. That, and the fact that we, the unsheltered record buying public in the UK, knew about it too.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood released ‘Two Tribes’ in 1984, with an accompanying video of ‘Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Konstantin Chernenko’, wrestling to the death in a bear pit. The single went straight to number one, and stayed there for nine weeks. Worth noting that the running time was a savvy 3 minutes 57 seconds, so there’d be just enough time for a final play, come the 4 minute warning, given the DJ had it to hand, and that ‘the birds’ weren’t launched during Simon Bates midmorning show on Radio 1.
Ultravox produced ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’, Heaven 17 ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’, even Bowie’s 1983 come back number one, ‘Let’s Dance’, featured an erupting mushroom cloud in the video. Even Sting wrote a song.
While the musing of Pop might have been dismissed, the BBC’s ‘QED’ documentary, ‘A Guide to Armageddon’, could not. Broadcast at peak-time in July 1982, it detailed the effects of a one megaton nuclear device detonating above St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Based on scientific assessments, it brought terrifying footage into the nation’s living rooms. Effects of the blast, miles from the epicentre, were illustrated by an exploding pane of glass lacerating a pumpkin, inter cut with the faces of kind, elderly ladies. This hazard would radiate out as far as Hornchurch, so I still had two miles grace, provided it was a solitary one megaton bomb, and it was on target. If it exploded over the Tower of London, there’d be no point drawing the curtains.
A couple of years later, once I’d leapfrogged Hornchurch to my Romford bed sit, I reasoned I’d only be slapped in the face by flying charred cardboard. On the downside I was closer to ‘Ground Zero’, so I’d most likely be entombed under ten thousand bricks decorated by a dozen Victorian chimney pots.
Watching the ‘QED” documentary again, thirty years on, there was clearly no escape, unless you contracted one of thirty UK companies, and paid them ten to twenty thousand pounds to install a fall out shelter in your back garden, providing had both the money and the garden. Hopefully, when the sirens came, you’d be close enough to access it, and keep your marauding neighbours out.
But once again such contingency was only postponing the inevitable; tinned peaches eventually run out. Even the Government’s ‘secret’ nuclear bunker in the bowels of Kelvedon Hatch, now a tourist attraction, carried a supply of cyanide capsules, to be used once ‘retaliation’ had been concluded.
Retrospectively the public consciousness of the time can now only be seen as embarrassing, irrational and illogical. I was there, and part of it, slavishly reading books on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and at no time did I ever stop to question why I was so obsessed in the first place.
Fascination with nuclear attack against the British Isles came from the Home Office publication of the pamphlet, ‘Protect and Survive’, (1976), which advised the householder of the precautions to take in the advent of impending mutually assured destruction, and was reprinted in May 1980 in response to a series of articles in The Times newspaper from January of that year.
Dated by simplistic language and illustrations, it was an exercise in keeping the ‘Gen Pop’ occupied with building shelters under the stairs, or digging a trench in the garden, which now looks exactly what it was; a convenient DIY grave and burial service in one.
The prospect of impending Armageddon terrified me, as well as the Swiss government, and clearly we weren’t the only ones. I still have my copy of ‘Protect and Survive’ within easy reach, and although I’m now too old to care about the sabre-rattling of nations, it does remind me of how governments, including my own, use fear as a means of control, and not to stress out over climate change. Back in the day, we only had four minutes. And the population surrounding Chernobyl didn’t even get that.
Nine board the the minibus in Kiev, all male. One assumes ladies opt for the day trip, rather than this Full-Blown Geek Weekender; whether that’s because ladies chose to avoid Chernobyl geeks, or because there’s a lack of facilities within the Exclusion Zone, I’m unsure. We’ll be using the bushes.
Before we start, Igor, our driver, guide and radiologist, presents his geiger counter, which registers 0.13 microsierverts. He assures us this is lower than in his apartment. In the UK, 0.15 is considered an acceptable level for background radiation, but we’re all aware we’re going well beyond that.
Once underway on the two hour drive north, we’re entertained by an onboard documentary, ‘The Battle of Chernobyl’. I’d seen it before; in fact I’d watched it the night before I flew to Kiev, as a refresher on the salient facts. I watch it again. It’s the remarkable story of the men, who not only responded to the crisis, but prevented a second explosion that had the potential to remove Europe from the map.
As we approach our destination, built up areas give way to roadside markets, then the people and the traffic thin, then are replaced by an empty road and endless trees.
It’s a beautiful day, with 9/11 sky. Once we’re processed at the military checkpoint, we head to an abandoned village that still stands amongst the undergrowth. Many such communities were razed by bulldozers, buried underground as a means of containment, the only sign of their passing the ubiquitous staked atomic markers. Fanning out, we enthusiastically weave between the saplings, creeping through interiors where possible, peering through windows when not.
Down the track that was once a street, through the undergrowth, sits the old cultural centre, the hub of the community. Inside the reliefs are falling from the walls and the stage lies forlorn. But I’m mesmerised by a faded blue and yellow poster on the wall. I can’t understand Ukrainian, so cannot read the text, but I don’t have to, because I know the pictogram only too well. Expressionless people constructing a DIY fall out shelter, then sitting and waiting. It’s the Eastern version of ‘Protect and Survive’.
We check in to our accommodation in time for lunch. Food is brought in from outside the exclusion zone, although contamination has by now penetrated the topsoil to the depth of a foot, and I remember the lambs of England’s infected pastures. But the ‘locals’ are probably still eating root crop from their kitchen gardens and apples from their orchards, and besides, I’m famished, the meal is tasty, so I clear my plate. Adopting the resolve and pragmatism of the bio-robots, conscripted to clean up the aftermath, I too will drink vodka and smoke cigarettes.
The hotel is a two storey prefab with shared bathrooms, set on the edge of the village of Chernobyl. A few long term residents sought permission to return, so the odd renovated cottage stands out amongst its ruined neighbours. The functioning church and the memorials, including the recent one to Fukushima, are also beautifully maintained.
Back in the bus we clear a second checkpoint, and enter the town of Pripyat, for the sights the internet made famous. The cultural centre, the police station, the swimming pool, the gymnasium, the amusement park, dominated by the iconic ferris wheel that never turned.
Officially these days you are not allowed to enter buildings, and with good reason; three years ago the sides of a four storey school sheared away, creating a giant doll’s house amongst the rubble. And at some point the lighting rig in the theatre smashed to the floor. But today there’s no patrolling guards to stop you entering, although you do so at your own risk.
Over the years roofs have developed leaks, so any wooden floors below are now soft and spongy with moss and rot. It’s a case of eyes everywhere, especially to the ceiling and floor before you enter any doorway, and tread warily, because the integrity of the buildings is only going to deteriorate.
The sleeves of my jacket chalk as I lean against walls to photograph the scrolls of peeling paint and the Urbex treasures within, although I was cute enough to bring disposable latex gloves to brush the traces off.
Inside the foyer of the hospital, Igor gathers us around a piece of cloth that came from one of the fireman’s uniforms. His geiger counter shrieks as he waves it towards the fabric. We take a collective step back, as if confronted by a spitting cobra, then cautiously edge forward. Over someone shoulder I can see the read out above the wail, as the counter monitors the hot cloth again. It’s past 0.15 - it’s registering 1666 point something, and it will remain like that for centuries.
The value of an experienced guide and a geiger counter is clear. He’s able to show us the best bits while protecting us from our curiosity that might lead us into basements, or picking anything up off the floor. Pripyat may well be the ultimate Urbex destination, but it contains hazards like no other.
Igor leads us safely through the maze to the rooftop of a sixteen story apartment block. Naturally there’s no working lift, so it’s thirty two flights up stone stairs, and clamber up a short iron ladder. But the panorama is like nothing else on earth. The buildings meshed within trees, the forest stretching beyond, sections still rust red from the fall out.
In the distance the sarcophagus housing the wrecked reactor and the glinting silver shield being built to encase it. On the horizon, the mysterious cat’s cradle structure, Duga-3, the so-called ‘Russian Woodpecker’, radar system. The advantage of taking the weekender is the additional time, which affords us the opportunity to explore this vast complex, a luxury denied to day trippers.
From here you can see Pripyat is truly lost. It just takes Nature time. It’s had thirty years, so there’s the best part of twenty thousand years to go. It is way beyond Biblical and our own recorded history, past, and probably future. Weeds and saplings puncture the asphalt, steps crumble, and without Igor’s local knowledge, and pointing out the stadium floodlights, I’d be oblivious that the fledgling wood we cross through was once the town’s football pitch.
We visit the floor of gas masks, and note the dolls, strategically positioned by other tourists to photograph. It is forbidden to remove anything from the area, and considering the highly radioactive piece of cloth inside the hospital, why would you? Yet Pripyat has the feel of having been picked over. Some residents returned to retrieve possessions after their hasty evacuation, but few had the necessary transport to reclaim furniture. The army eventually smashed the windows, and took axes to the pianos, ensuring they didn’t follow the looted, contaminated television sets to the shops in Kiev.
We stop on the road to view the silhouette of the sarcophagus, hastily constructed at great risk to contain the damaged reactor. Even by 1991, five years after the explosion, there were birds roosting inside. Indeed it was reported there were holes large enough to drive a car through. Alongside, the new shield that will encase the old structure gleams in the afternoon sunshine. It’s projected to have a life span of a century, so it will put the problem off for a while, until Chernobyl’s eternal sentence catches up again.
Then Igor utters the immortal line
“Let us go closer to the nuclear reactor.”
Five minutes later we troop off the bus under the watchful eye of camouflaged personnel to see the monument in the shadow of reactor number 4. Standing at a tangent, we have just 8 minutes allocated to take our pictures. Construction on the new shield takes place behind a protective wall. Workers carry out shifts of five hours a day for a month, then have 15 days off. When completed in 2017, the ‘New Safe Confinement’, the largest movable structure ever created, will run on rails over the the original sarcophagus. Robotic arms inside the new shield can then dismantle the original structure.
Chernobyl is the opportunity to time travel. From the 26th April 1986, the clocks began to run down. It hasn’t been frozen in time, because Nature has taken over, and the evidence of what it can do in thirty years is plain to see, as it will be in the decades, centuries, and millennia to come.
The trip afforded me the chance to revisit my youth, and evaluate the times I lived in. Chernobyl is one of those, “I remember where I was when I heard’ moments. Yet it also provides the portal to our collective future, to a time when humanity is no longer here. It’s not the film set of apocalyptic imagination, although that’s the only thing that is comparable. But Chernobyl is real; it doesn’t require Will Smith, and I recommend it without reservation.
You don’t have to go this minute. You’ve got all the time in the world.
I travelled to Chernobyl with Lupine Travel, (www.lupinetravel.co.uk), who can arrange day trips, weekenders, or customised packages. I was so impressed with Lupine they’ve become my tour operator of choice for exploring the world of the weird and wonderful.
We recently returned from our inaugural Ethiopia and Somaliland tour. The trip didn't get off to the best start when the hotel we were staying in burned down on the first morning! The historic Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa was the oldest hotel in Ethiopia and it was terribly sad to see a piece of history up in flames. Luckily no one was injured and one of our clients 'Clem' Clemson was on hand to give a first hand witness report to the Daily Mail.
The highlight of our trip was undoubtedly the extension to the other worldly Danakil Depression where we witnessed everything from live lava lakes, volcanic roads, camel caravans, salt lakes and amazingly colorful hydrothermal field at Dallol.
In Harar we fed wild hyenas and kites whilst in Somaliland many of the group became genuine Somalian citizens after picking up passports on the black market in Hargeisa!
Our 2016 trip will run in January 2016. Half of the 16 available polaces have ben booked up already so get in touch soon if you'd like to join us. We will also be offering the chance to do extension trips to Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan. Details will follow soon.
You can find photos and videos from the trip at the links below:
Danakil/Ethiopia/Somaliland photos (by Tonis Hobejogi)
Ethiopia and Somaliland highlights video (by Tom Sanderson)
Welcome to our new blog page! We will be updating this page regularly with details of our upcoming tours, new destinations, tour blogs and general musings. To start with, here is an article that caught our eye in an edition of the Tehran Times:
Forty five years ago, the United States sold my country a research reactor as well as weapons grade uranium as its fuel. Not long afterward, America agreed to help Iran set up the full nuclear fuel cycle along with atomic power plants. The U.S argument was that nuclear power would provide for the growing needs of our economy and free our remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.
That rationale has not changes. Still, after the Islamic Revolution in our country in 1979, all understandings with the United States in the nuclear field unravelled. Washington even cut off fuel deliveries to the very facility it supplied. To secure fuel from other sources, Iran was forced to modify the reactor to run on uranium enriched to around 20 percent. The Tehran research Reactor still operates, supplying isotopes used in the medical treatment of 800,000 of my fellow Iranians every year.
But getting to this point wasn't easy. In 2009, we put forward a request to the International Atomic Energy Agency for fuel for the reactor as its supply was running out, threatening the lives of many Iranians. When we agreed to exchange a major portion of our stock of lower enriched uranium for reactor fuel in 2010 - a proposal by the Obama administration - the response we got from the White House was a push for more U.N Security Council sanctions.
Again, we did what every government is obliged to do: protect and ensure the well-being of our citizens. Thanks to the grace of God and the hard work of our committed and growing cadre of scientists, we managed to do something we have never done before: enrich uranium to the needed 20 percent and mold it into fuel plates for the reactor We have never failed when faced with no option but to provide for our own needs.
All relationships - whether between parents and children, spouses or even nation-states - are based on trust. The example of the Tehran Research Reactor vividly illustrates the key issue between Iran and the United States: lack of trust.
We have strongly marked our opposition to weapons of mass destruction on many occasions. Almost seven years ago, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a binding commitment. He issued a religious edict - a fatwa - forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. Our stance against weapons of mass destruction, which is far from new, has been put to the test. When Saddam Hussein attacked us with chemical weapons in the 1980's, we did not retaliate with the same means. And when it comes to our nuclear energy program, the IAEA has failed to find and military dimension, despite an unprecedented number of man hours in intrusive inspections.
Being sovereign and independent does not mean that there is no room for dialogue or diplomacy. It means that one enters and debate as an equal, based on mutual respect and justice. To reestablish trust, all sides must assume an honest approach with a view toward moving past the barriers to sincere dialogue.
A key aspect of entering a conversation based on mutual respect is recognizing the other side’s concerns as equal to one’s own. To solve the nuclear issue, the scope of the upcoming talks among Iran and the “P5+1” (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany) must be comprehensive. The concerns of all sides must be addressed. Complex matters that have been left unaddressed for decades cannot be solved overnight. Another sign of mutual respect is a willingness and readiness to both give and take, without preconditions. This form of reciprocity is distinct from approaches that involve only taking. Most important, and this cannot be stressed enough, is that dialogue must be seen as a process rather than an event. A house can burn to the ground in minutes but takes a long time to build. Similarly, trust can easily and rapidly be broken, but it takes a long time to build.
If the intention of dialogue is merely to prevent cold conflict from
turning hot, rather than to resolve differences, suspicion will
linger. Trust will not be established. Despite sanctions, threats of
war, assassinations of several of our scientists and other forms of
terrorism, we have chosen to remain committed to dialogue.
In the upcoming talks, we hope that all sides will return to the negotiating table as equals with mutual respect; that all sides will be committed to comprehensive, long-term dialogue aimed at resolving all parties’ outstanding concerns; and, most important, that all sides make genuine efforts to reestablish confidence and trust.