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Archive for February, 2011

Abandoned hospitals are creepy places. It’s kind of in their nature. Like abandoned amusement parks. Hotels, spas, mines… they don’t really get under my skin. Amusement parks and hospitals do – but none of them even nearly as much as Hospital No 126 in Pripyat!
When Maxim asked us on the first day which places we wanted to see, a hospital appeared on top of my priority list instantly. Hospitals are generally hard to find and even harder to access (since they usually are in easy to reach locations and filled with expensive equipment), so this was a great opportunity to explore one in a more relaxed atmosphere. At least that was my hope… sadly it wasn’t fulfilled. Nevertheless Hospital No 126 turned out to be my favorite location in Pripyat.
Although it was still morning we already “lost” quite some time on the Cooling Towers and the Przewalski’s Horses, so we arrived at the hospital way behind the schedule our dear guide has planned for us. As a result Maxim gave us half an hour since “the next location will be even better”.
So there was the time pressure… and then there was the atmosphere that was everything but relaxing. Of all the real places in Pripyat this one was by far the most real. The basement is actually one of the most contaminated places in the world and holds the suits of the first six firefighters that died within a couple of weeks after the accident. Maxim told us that he went down there once with full protection gear, but had to leave after about 30 seconds – something he never wants to do again.
At that point Maxim knew that Sebi, Michi and I were reasonable and responsible-minded people, so he just quickly entered the hospital with us to guide us to one of the interesting floors and then returned outside to wait with our driver. My fellow Swiss explorers headed their own way and so it took about two minutes until I was all by myself. In the maternity ward of an abandoned hospital. In Pripyat. Almost 25 years after the accident. Without the shadow of a doubt the highlight of this trip. We’ve all seen a horror movie or two, played video games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. The hospital felt like being the star in one of those works of fiction. On a very irrational basis – because the place was perfectly safe. It just didn’t look and feel like it…
Thanks to the time restraint I was only able to see one of the floors of one of the departments, maybe a tenth of the building, but it was nevertheless amazing. Almost every room, every corner had something interesting to offer. There were surgical instruments, bedpans, gynecological examination chairs, bathtubs, whole boxes of medicine, posters and signs with medical explanations (including explicit pictures) and much, much more. At the end of the hallway were several rooms with rusty baby beds, a really uncomfortable sight. The lighting that day contributed a lot to the atmosphere and made it very difficult to take pictures – never before I wished more that I had a tripod! Since I was in a hurry I cranked up the ISO and took photos while quickly exploring the rooms along the hallway – and on the way back I filmed about two thirds of the floor with my video camera. Sorry that parts of the video turned out to be a bit blurry, but there was no time for re-shooting; just consider it part of the atmosphere…
Looking through the photos from the relaxed comfort of my home, one of them caught my eye and gave me the creeps, although it’s quite unspectacular at a first glance. It shows an opened up register lying on top of other documents. There are lots of handwritten entries and even without speaking any Russian / Ukrainian I guess it’s pretty obvious what it is: Hospital staff logging in for work at 8am and 8pm on April 24th 1986, April 25th 1986, April 26th 1986 – and on April 27th nobody cared to log in at 8pm anymore… (EDIT: Well, obviously I was wrong – Greg let me know in the comments that it’s actually a checklist for people making sure that locked medicine is still where it should be. Thanks again, Greg!)
(If you would like to know more about my trip to the Zone Of Alienation please *click here* to get to the “Chernobyl & Pripyat” special. For a map of the area please *click here*. If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Przewalski’s Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii, Dzungarian Horse), named after the Russian explorer and geographer Nicolai Przewalski, is a rare and endanger kind of wild horse and was first described in 1881 by L.S. Poliakov. The current world population of about 1500 animals are all descendants from nine horses kept in captivity in 1945 (total population then: 31). At one point extinct in the wild Przewalski’s Horses have been reintroduced to their former native habitat in Mongolia as well as to Hungary, China and Ukraine; the latter one offering space for the wild horses in Askania-Nova and the Zone Of Alienation.
On the first day, on our way from the 30km checkpoint of the Zone Of Alienation to Pripyat, Maxim told us how scientists returned several dozens of Przewalski’s Horses to the wild in the late 80s. The Exclusion Zone was already kind of a natural preserve, so the horses did well and their number raised to about 120. Nowadays, Maxim told us with some sadness in his voice, they are a rare sight since their number is down to about 60. Officially they migrated to the Belarus part of the Zone Of Alienation, but Maxim had a different explanation that involved bored militia and rifles…
On the second day, when we were driving from the monument at reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant to do some more exploration in Pripyat, Maxim and our driver all of a sudden had a quick conversation in Ukrainian. Close to a building in the middle of nowhere they stopped the car, got out and pointed to the road in front of us. Przewalski’s Horses. At first I had no clue what they were talking about, but then a horse’s head appeared behind a tree about 80 meters in front of us. The horse was carefully stepping on the street, followed by about half a dozen more. Maxim and the driver (sorry dude, forgot your name!) were really excited, taking pictures with their cell phone cameras. Luckily I had my 18-200mm lens mounted, so I was able to take some quite nice shots of those shy creatures. I’ve never seen wild horses before and it was very interesting to see how they behaved – they kept us under constant surveillance. While some of the horses nibbled on some grass now and then, at least half of them always had their eyes on us, making sure that we didn’t get too close.
Having urban exploration as a hobby I ran into all kinds of rather unusual wild animals before – snakes, boars, monkeys… but the Przewalski’s Horses were by far the most impressive ones. Another experience that took me completely by surprise.
After we got back into the van to continue our way to Pripyat Maxim told us that he hasn’t seen any Przewalski’s Horses in more than three years – and he spends half his life in the Zone Of Alienation as a guide…
(If you would like to know more about my trip to the Zone Of Alienation please *click here* to get to the “Chernobyl & Pripyat” special. For a map of the area please *click here*.)

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Exploring Pripyat on the first day was very exciting, no doubt about it. But it wasn’t until the morning of the second day that I fully comprehended where I was – and that’s why strongly recommend making the sarcophagus the first place to go if you ever have the chance to visit the Zone Of Alienation.
Don’t get me wrong, before I made my way to the Exclusion Zone I prepared myself quite well. I read up on the catastrophe and watched some documentaries. I studied maps and read reports by other people visiting the zone. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was clearly visible from Pripyat most of the time and the Geiger counter went nuts every now and then. But overall exploring Pripyat felt like exploring any of the 60 locations I visited before – just more spectacular; way more spectacular.
Entering the cooling tower of reactor #5 was awe-inspiring and then finally standing in front of the sarcophagus at reactor #4 was… It changed my perception of the area. Like I said, I was prepared and aware where I was, but finally seeing the place so familiar from TV while the Geiger counter shows that the level of radioactivity was 400 times the normal level even at a distance of 250 meters… All of a sudden everything became real. Way more real than before. Reading and watching TV is definitely no substitution for actually experiencing stuff – which makes it so hard to describe now how I felt standing there. Because the sight actually isn’t that impressive. A small monument in front of a security checkpoint we were not allowed to take photos of, with a greyish building in the background. But it was interesting how it brought back the imagines of the documentaries I’ve seen… and of the TV news I watched in the 80s, almost 25 years ago.
I just wish Novarka wasn’t behind schedule – the consortium won a contract worth 453 million Euro to build a new sarcophagus replacing the old one which looks quite dilapidated, but it is way behind schedule. A French consortium BTW, as Maxim wasn’t tired to point out – our guide was a very lighthearted guy, but there were two things he couldn’t stand. Well, three: militia, Russian vodka and French companies building stuff in the Zone Of Alienation.
(If you would like to know more about my trip to the Zone Of Alienation please *click here* to get to the “Chernobyl & Pripyat” special. For a map of the area please *click here*.)

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After spending the whole first day exploring Pripyat we started our second day by going to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant to finally see the building where the tragic accident happened almost 25 years ago.
On the way to reactor 4, the one that blew up, we stopped at a water canal a couple of hundred meters away. From there we were able to have a look at reactors 5 and 6, under construction at the time of the accident, as well as their cooling towers. The original plan in the 70s and 80s was to have a huge power plant with up to 12 blocks, by far the biggest in the Soviet Union. After the accident the construction of the reactors 5 and 6 continued, but due the high levels of radiation in the area were put on hold on January 1st 1988 with most of the machinery left behind. When the Soviet Union dissolved a couple of years later and Ukraine became a sovereign state the plans of expanding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant were finally scrapped and so the construction site became another abandoned place in that area.
The stop was rather underwhelming and when one of the Swiss guys wanted to get closer I just thought “Really?”… But Maxim, after thinking for a couple of seconds since it wasn’t part of the schedule he planned for us, agreed and so we got back in the van, drove closer, crossed some railroad tracks by foot and walked towards the cooling towers. They looked interesting, but I still wasn’t impressed. Being in front of the almost finished cooling tower Sebi and Michi looked happier than ever before. After standing around for a minute or two I asked, without being serious at all, if we were able to get inside – usually the asphalt and concrete surfaces were not so much contaminated whereas the Geiger counter went nuts once we stepped on moss, grass or soil. To my surprise Maxim said something like “Yes, just make sure to walk this way!”, making a gesture with his hand.
I walked the 30 meters from the street to the cooling tower and entering the giant open hyperboloid structure almost was like entering a cathedral – even if you are not into the purpose of the building the architecture is still mind-blowing, especially when looking up. And then it hit me: I was actually standing in the half finished cooling tower of a nuclear power plant, only 2.5 kilometers away from where one of the biggest man-made catastrophe in history happened! A very humbling, fascinating and knee-softening moment.
Since entering the cooling towers wasn’t planned we only had about 20 minutes there, but given that the lighting was quite difficult it was actually enough – although Maxim told me on the way to the van that he once spent more than 3 hours with a photographer there. Just to shoot the cooling tower. And although I spent two days in the zone, seeing maybe a third of the interesting locations, I often had the feeling that I’ve spent maybe a tenth of the time it deserves at every building…
(If you would like to know more about my trip to the Zone Of Alienation please *click here* to get to the “Chernobyl & Pripyat” special. For a map of the area please *click here*.)

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Although Pripyat was a city predominantly inhabited by educated and privileged people of course no city of that size could exist without a police station – it sounds so cliché, but most of the arrested people were accused of alcohol related deeds: making home-brew liquor (samogon, самого́н), driving under influence or being drunk in public. Pripyat’s police station was located at the western end of the town, right across the street from the fire department and in close proximity of the famous Jupiter factory we were visiting the next day. After visiting rather well-known touristy spots like the Swimming Pool “Azure” and Middle School #3 the Police Station was the last destination in Pripyat on the first day.
The Police Station was in as bad shape as the rest of the city, just with more books and files. We were only able to see the ground floor since time was running out and Maxim tried to keep the little group together to guide us through the prison part of the police station which was pitch black; and that’s why this time I’ll have to post some photos taken with flash. When I show people some pictures of my visit to Pripyat I often get reactions like “I would expect screaming zombies charging at me at any time!”. I actually never had that feeling, the whole city reminded me more of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Especially when walking through the dark prison hallway… You could almost see Winston Smith being interrogated in one of the cells and being tortured in another one. To my surprise I was the only one with those associations: My fellow Swiss travelers had only heard about the book, Maxim had no idea what I was talking about.
The door leading to freedom at the other end of the cell hallway actually released us to the backyard of the Police Station, once used as a repair shop for automobiles. There we found the remains of all kinds of trucks, broaching machines and even small reconnaissance tanks. Being contaminated too much to be used anymore, but not enough to be brought to the official vehicle graveyard, these wheels and chains were left behind to rust away. And that’s what they were doing. At least what was still left after looters removed the actual wheels as well as doors, headlights, wipers and even motors!
(If you would like to know more about my trip to the Zone Of Alienation please *click here* to get to the “Chernobyl & Pripyat” special. For a map of the area please *click here*.)

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Right next to the indoor Swimming Pool “Azure” was the Middle School #3 at Sportivnaya Street 14, one of 5 secondary schools in Pripyat. Due to its convenient location this school is part of the standard program not only for day tourists, but for pretty much everybody visiting the city.
While middle school #1 partly collapsed in July of 2005, #3 was still intact, but in pretty bad shape. Nowadays being one of the most visited places in town this school for several hundred children must have been a place of education at least up to par with western institutions of its time. I was especially surprised to see several small rooms with pianos, Beethoven sheet music still lying around. Back in the days my middle school had a piano, too. But only one, and I’ve never heard anybody playing…
The atmosphere at Middle School #3 was pretty creepy, maybe because the tone was set pretty close to the entrance: On the way to the kitchen we found several dozens gas masks scattered all over the floor. While I remember certain Cold War related drills at school (mine actually had a bunker including an emergency hospital underneath) I’m pretty sure we never dealt with gas masks, at least not outside of chemistry lessons. For Maxim, who was in his early 30s and therefore spent some of his school education in the communist system, it was perfectly normal to have gas masks at schools as they were part of his drills. I guess while the western hemisphere was “only” in fear of nuclear missiles, the Soviets were prepared for all kinds of attacks…
The gas masks were where once the cafeteria must have been as a kitchen was right next to it. From there I could get outside to an inner courtyard, but the floor outside was in really bad shape, so I didn’t risk a broken ankle and stayed inside. While the other guys already moved on to other parts of the building I went up one floor where I found the piano rooms and several class rooms. Parts of the floor were covered with books and documents up to 20 centimeters high, a really sad sight. It’s said that the powers that be systematically destroyed the interior of the buildings in Pripyat to discourage looters from entering the Zone Of Alienation – but it was nevertheless unpleasant to see printed knowledge been treated like that. Who would steal school books anyways?
The building itself was in a progressed state of natural decay. In addition to the paint peeling off a lot of the walls were mold-infested, putting the school on a fast track to collapse – after exploring Middle School #3 it didn’t surprise me at all that #1 was one of the first buildings in Pripyat that collapsed, even without having seen it myself. At that point school #3 was by far the most uncomfortable place I’ve seen in Pripyat. But not for long as the Police Station was next on our itinerary…
(If you would like to know more about my trip to the Zone Of Alienation please *click here* to get to the “Chernobyl & Pripyat” special. For a map of the area please *click here*.)

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