Chernobyl: On a power trip

By Amos Chapple

A view across the apartment blocks of Pripyat to Chernobyl in the distance. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image
A view across the apartment blocks of Pripyat to Chernobyl in the distance. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image

He followed me quietly into the stairwell, pushing the door closed. "I'll do whatever the hell I want. You're not in the West now."

At that he thumped his hand into my throat so my head was jolted back, cracking into the corner of the landing. The rest was delivered with his face quivering and wide-eyed, up against mine as he squeezed my windpipe.

With a punch to my stomach, the owner of the Kiev Sky City Hostel released his hold on me and stepped back.

"I'm going to the police." I said, reeling with shock.

"Right," he sneered, his frame filling up the door as he stepped back inside the hostel. "You go to the police." And he banged the door shut.

I was on my way to Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear disaster. Months earlier I'd found an opening on one of the tours of the Exclusion Zone and now I was taking it up. Driven by curiosity to see a snapshot of Soviet Communism, I'd flown from London to Poland, catching a night train across the border and rumbling into Kiev in the midst of a snowstorm.

I'd thought there might be problems but I hadn't quite expected this. After my encounter with the hotelier I was out in the street looking for a bed, doing my best to control a rising panic and trying not to look vulnerable in the snowy darkness of the city.

Eventually I found lodgings in the railway station. I lay awake into the night running over the attack in my head. When had I provoked him? I'd originally booked three nights in the hostel, announcing when I arrived that I would be staying only two. There'd been an awkward exchange when he told me that they had a 24-hour cancellation policy. The third night, surely was 48 hours away?

At 8.30 the next morning our laconic Ukrainian guide arrived with a driver to collect the tourists: two members of a Polish TV crew, a young couple from Lithuania and me, desperately glad of the company.

This part of the world is bleak. From the minibus, during the 40 minute drive, we looked out on suburbs where people walk with their heads down.

As the minibus came closer to Chernobyl the landscape emptied of people and buildings until we were driving through snowy desolation. Our guide explained that farmland near the epicentre of the disaster is now abandoned, poisoned by the radioactive dust which settled on the soil more than two decades ago.

The policemen at the entrance to the "Exclusion Zone" checked our papers then waved us through from their lead-lined bunker.

It's beautiful inside the zone, like the entrance to some pristine national park. The road cut a tunnel through young birch trees which have grown in a thick cluster up to the edges of the road.

Looking through this wall of trees, we saw houses. The trees have grown up through patches of land which were once family lawns. Barely visible through the gloom of the woods the houses sat, slowly disappearing into the silence.

The landscape suddenly became industrial, the horizon spiky with pylons. Ahead was the chimney of Reactor Four, where one fine day 26 years ago a safety check carried out by an inexperienced crew caused a nuclear chain reaction which flashed the reactor's cooling water into steam and blew off the roof of the reactor.

Two workers were killed instantly. Exposed to air, the burning graphite core spewed radioactive dust up into the breeze. The next day staff at a Swedish nuclear plant, 1100 km away detected radiation on their clothing. It was the first the outside world knew of the disaster.

Driving under the plant, we wiped the moisture from the windows and stared up at the chimney, black snowclouds rearing up behind it. Like a mighty Soviet statue, once an icon of power, it is now a grim relic of a political system based on fear.

Fear and power. I'd had my taste of it in the hotel the night before.

"You can't just kick me out!"

It had sounded pathetic even as I said it.

He gave me a new price for the two nights. I thanked him and asked if I could use his computer when he'd finished.

"Why?"

I'd just arrived in the country and wanted to check what the local currency, the Hryvna, was worth. He stalked back into his office without responding.

With a prickle of fear I sat on my bed and took off my socks, damp and freezing at the toes.

"Mate, If you don't like it you can just leave."

He was standing in the dormitory again, his hands held out from his camouflage trousers, palms towards me.

And that was it, he'd made up his mind. I was out. I hadn't provoked him. It was just a matter of power.

The people of Pripyat knew all about that.

Our minivan was silent as we drew into this empty town. This was where the workers lived, near the power station. Once home to 50,000 people, it's now completely deserted, so irradiated it will remain unliveable for centuries.

At night wolves roam these streets, picking their way between the apartment blocks. They stalk the deer and boar which hunters won't go near. The flesh of these animals is tainted with the radiation they pick up from the soil.

Three of us climbed the town's highest apartment block, staying close together as we zigzagged up the staircase.

I lingered on the roof after the others left, looking down over the cracked town square, the optimistic little ferris wheel creaking in the middle of the silent town.

On the way back down I walked into one of the corridors. Chunks of brick wall lay in fragments over the floor, the wallpaper hung off the walls in large sheets. Near the end of the corridor a snowdrift streaked up the hallway.

I pushed open one of the apartment doors. It was padded to keep out the cold. Inside, the apartment was a little oasis of colour. Doves were painted on the wall of the dining room. Palm trees, bending gently in a tropical breeze, stencilled in the kitchen. A little galaxy of stickers above the bathtub - gnomes chasing butterflies, brightly coloured vintage cars.

A pair of child's fur-lined boots lay on smashed tiles, their shoelaces tied together. While radioactive dust rained down on this family, the Soviet Government scrambled to cover it up. It was three days before they finally announced there had been an accident at Chernobyl.

And little seems to have changed.

When the hotelier picked up my backpack and threw it out into the stairwell my position became crashingly clear.

I was nothing, a foreigner, no friends in the country, no influence, no power. Like the family who once lived in apartment 48.

He could do whatever he wanted with me, and so could the Soviets in 1986.

Whatever the hell they wanted.

CHECKLIST

Amos Chapple booked his Chernobyl tour through Solo East Travel - based in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev - and found travel agent Sergei Ivanchukl (ph +380 44 406 3500) excellent to deal with.

The agency's website is tourkiev.com but Chapple warns, "the agency only acts as a go-between, the tour itself is guided by people employed by the Ukraine Government and they are lousy."

- NZ Herald

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