The three of us were about to enter the highly restricted exclusion zone around Chernobyl's reactor. Myself, a science teacher friend, and our guide - Yuri, in his noisy Lada, complete with pine cone air freshener hanging from the mirror. We'd taken an overnight train from Rzezow in Poland to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where Yuri had picked us up this morning. A two hour drive through the countryside, and we were at the first check-point.
Twenty two years ago the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl's unassumingly-titled Reactor Number Four exploded, sending a radioactive plume of toxic fallout west across Europe - four hundred times more than than released in the bombing of Hiroshima. Today, a thirty mile exclusion zone, with armed guards, surrounds an inner ring with additional guards ten miles from the reactor, and inside that zone - once home to the thriving city of Pripyat, and many smaller villages - there is nobody. We were about to change that.
At this point our car was given a half-hearted search by security while we stared wide-eyed at their weapons and the many Cyrillic warning signs. Yuri presented us with a Geiger counter to measure the radiation levels, with numbers that my science teacher friend understood, while I just worried over the ever-increasing speed of the "bip-bip-bip" coming from it.
A bit more driving and we were in sight of the infamous reactor itself. When it blew, firefighters gave their lives dropping water, sand and concrete onto the blaze in an effort to create a "shelter" (though the media termed it the "sarcophagus") and hopefully prevent further leaking. Today the monstrous sides are cracking and crumbling; an ominous sight.
We moved away and crossed over the "Bridge of Death" nearby, where people had stood to look directly into the glowing, melting core, not knowing that they would die within weeks from radiation poisoning. Entering the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat did nothing to improve the scene. At the time, the purpose-built town held fifty thousand residents, all of whom were evacuated and told to leave everything as it was. They have yet to return.
The town at the time was going through a building boom, with the new school in place, hotels, and a new restaurant and theme park due to open in days. Now the main hotel has no windows, and a lone tree grows out of the cracks on the eighth floor. The central supermarket looks like a small tornado was
born within it, with vandals having long ago taken anything of value. The hand prints of handball players still show on the wall of the gym, and the pool stands empty, the diving board lying abandoned by the edge.
Outside, the now semi-legendary theme park is deserted. The bumper car arena has weeds all the way through, and a canoe-swing lies where someone had dragged it in the middle of the park. All around us it is eerily silent, save for the faint cry of a wild pig.
Inside the school, classrooms were left with books on desks, tools lying where wood-working students left them, and the library was a mess of rotting books, their shelves long pushed over by vandals. On the board were drill instructions for gas leaks, and instructions on assembling a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Trundling back out in Yuri's faithful Lada, we pondered over what we'd just experienced. A ghost city, the legacy of a tragedy that affected so many, destroying lives and ruining the collective hope and dreams of its people, now just a skeleton of its former self. Radiation is still at a critical level in the reactor though, and while short exposure in the surrounding area is sufficiently safe, any prolonged stay incurs a serious risk. But as we went through the radiation scanners and stopped at Yuri's office for some food (all food is brought in from Kiev), we could see changes around us. New above-ground water pipes snaked their way around - it's considered too great a risk to put them underground. Some residents have applied to return to their homes, even two decades on. Animals have apparently thrived upon their return, and ornithologists have even observed birds flying in and out of a crack in the reactor's sarcophagus, seemingly indicating a nest inside. More than two decades after that fateful day, against all the odds, life goes on.