Stairway To Nowhere – The Chernobyl Tour: Memory Makers

Imagine for a moment a group of 10 foreigners standing around a table in a block shaped administrative building in the village of Chernobyl. In the middle of the table is a liability waiver form written entirely in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet. None of the foreigners can read the language or alphabet. Of the group, only one is ethnically Slavic, a 50-ish Polish woman with eyes as bright as her blonde hair. She finds the form just as incomprehensible as everyone else does. It seems that she has been living in Great Britain for several decades. A short, slightly balding Finnish male, who looks ten years older than his actual age, quietly stares forward at nothing in particular. His expression says “will they or won’t they. Whatever they decide to do, I will follow.” A Norwegian, who also happens to be a soldier, looks nonchalant and slightly bemused. No one utters a word. The silence is a symptom of discomfort. They could all be signing their lives away.

A pen has been laid beside the form, which has a series of blank lines awaiting signatures. Sign and the guided tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will continue for those who agree to waive liability so they can enter one of the world’s most toxic areas. Refuse to sign and it means getting left behind in the building, spending the rest of the day experiencing what the later years of the Soviet Union was like, stagnant, stolid and emotionally indifferent. Everyone knows what they are supposed to do, but no one wants to go first. There is a pen that was left behind by the Ukrainian tour guide who left the room a couple of minutes earlier. He did not offer much in the way of advice. He had made an offer without really making an offer, knowing that only the foolish would refuse to sign.

I was part of this group, the lone American who suddenly felt a close kinship with a group of reticent northern Europeans. I felt a sense of relief that they were now at my side, nine other people who would make this decision easier for me.  The question that hung in the air was this: who was going to sign first? I was looking at everyone else, staring out from the corners of my eyes. Finally the husband of the Polish woman, the lone Englishman in the group put an end to our plight with a bit of quintessentially English pragmatism. “Oh just come on and sign the thing. We didn’t come all this way to turn around. No way is anyone going back without seeing it.” Tight smiles and nervous chuckles followed. Of course, he was right. We had traveled an hour and a half north of Kiev, paid almost a hundred dollars and had suffered through a foreign language film on the Chernobyl disaster that seemed to be a half-life in length. We had come to see Chernobyl and that was exactly what we were about to do, sort of.

Guide with a Geiger Counter - the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant complex can be seen in the background

Guide with a Geiger Counter – the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant complex can be seen in the background

A State Of Nature – Pripyat Consumed
On any guided tour, let alone one to Chernobyl, there are many fascinating attractions to see. Tourism on the dark side was my initial reason for taking this tour. By that I mean a personal fascination with catastrophe and tragedy. I have no idea why I gravitate towards tragic places. It is more about a feeling rather than a flair for the dramatic. Certain places are fraught with tension and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is one of them. It is a rather banal cliché to say that travel is about discovery, but that is true. Not so much discovery of a place, as of yourself.  There was something I needed from this place. Perhaps it was validation of my worst fears about humanity, where we have been and where we are headed when it comes to nuclear weapons and energy, a place of no return. I sensed this while walking around the eerie, modern ghost town of Pripyat, surely one of the largest, vacant urban environments anywhere in the world. I came within a kilometer of the notorious Reactor Number Four, whose meltdown and explosion contaminated an area equivalent to the size of Belgium. I ate in the power plant’s canteen and suffered no ill effects. Much of the tour was spent observing the tour guide holding a Geiger counter which did most of the talking. Its constant whine was a surreal and shrill accompaniment to the tour, rising or falling depending on the level of radiation in the air or ground. It was an alarm that would take thousands of years to turn off.

Was the tour worth it? The short answer is yes, for two very different reasons. The Exclusion Zone, specifically Pripyat, was and always be (unless man commits nuclear suicide) an experience without precedent. Little explanation was necessary. The place was the opposite of normal. Imagine an entire city being consumed by nature, absent the humanity which had labored to build it. Wilderness was slowly, inexorably overtaking the work of man. Pripyat is the ultimate example of humanity’s fleeting existence. Everything manmade eventually decays, sliding back toward a state of nature. Ironically, the longest lasting manmade thing in Pripyat happens to be radioactive contamination. It kills off man and at the same time lives on for thousands of years without him, an invisible and toxic artifact of self-destruction.

A near death experience - a ferris wheel in Pripyat's former amusement park

Near death experience – a ferris wheel in Pripyat’s former amusement park

Fossilized Remains – The Memory Makers
The tour’s value was also enhanced by one thing that had little to do with Chernobyl, the experience of interacting with other members of the group. Many of their faces, words and actions have stayed with me. What I remember has less to do with Chernobyl and more to do with the oddities and nuances of the people I traveled with. These memories – and photos I rarely ever look at – are all that I have left of that day. There was the Englishman, who looked to be his late 60’s. He was a fascinating character for two reasons and one of those reasons had little to do with him. First there was his Polish wife, who was at least a decade younger with sparkling eyes and the charismatic softness of her accented English. She had a magnetic allure, one of those women who no matter their age are sexy without even trying to be. It was hard to tell what was more mysterious, the power of her beauty or the fact that a somewhat haggard, ill dressed and rather disheveled Englishman, had somehow won her heart. He was quite the charmer though.

Like most Englishman I have met, he managed to use humor to keep everyone feeling welcome while also at a distance. He was full of verbal witticisms and clever asides. Yet he too was mysterious. When I asked him why they were travelling in Ukraine he stated an interest in fossils. When I questioned him further, asking if he was a paleontologist, all he would offer was that they were returning from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv where they had seen an important fossil. I believed him even though I had no idea what he was talking about. I tried to imagine what the famous fossil in Kharkiv might look like, all I could envision was a neo-Soviet bureaucrat.

View from a balcony - at Pripyat's abandoned hotel

View from a balcony – at Pripyat’s abandoned Hotel Polissa

Soldiering On – Hugs, Kisses & Loneliness
Then there were a handful of Norwegians. The soldier was happy to talk about his duties in the Norwegian army. Basically it sounded like a good paying job, with plenty of fringe benefits, such as long holidays, learning how to play at war and getting to hang out for a living. I am sure he was a devout believer in rubber bullets. The guy seemed less like a soldier and more like everyone’s best friend. He was taking a long weekend to visit Chernobyl. This was the normal life of a single male Norwegian soldier, something definitely worth fighting for. There was also a Norwegian retiree couple who had traveled around the deep south of the United States. It did not take long for them to detect my southern accent. They regaled me with their stories of using public transport in Memphis, Tennessee. Everyone had warned them that they were going to get mugged for sure. They were surprised to be the only white people on the bus and had encountered no problems, only helpful, friendly people. They talked about this for a good half hour, fascinated with their supposed brush with danger in America.

My most distinct memories involve two people from Finland. One was a girl in her 20’s who turned out to actually be a Mexican national. She had come to Finland as part of a university exchange program, found a job and decided to stay, an icy proposition. She said the weather was dreadfully frigid and gray during the long winters. People drank too much, but the Finns were so polite, even when they were falling over drunk. She told me a story of how reserved they were emotionally. One time, she had sent her Finnish boyfriend a romantic text, something to the effect of “Hugs and Kisses.” This had freaked him out. He immediately called her, asking what it all meant.  Suffering thirty below half the year could probably do that to any man’s emotions.

There was also a stereotypically shy Finnish man. With his soft voice, unassuming nature and social awkwardness, he seemed fit for a cubicle at some Nordic computer programming powerhouse. He actually was a computer programmer who talked about the threat of outsourcing to his job. Talking to him made me both bored and nervous at the same time. He had one of the nicest cameras I have ever seen around his neck. It looked like he was born with the thing on. The lens was bigger than a baby’s head. He enjoyed traveling around the Baltic, where he visited the old trade cities of the Hanseatic League. I got the feeling that he was the kind of person who was completely content with loneliness. Loneliness was something I did not feel much of on this trip. I came to see Chernobyl and Pripyat, but ended up feeling like I was on a Scandinavian tourist junket with a witty Englishman thrown in for good measure.

Stairway to nowhere - in Pripyat's abandoned Hotel Polissa

Stairway to nowhere – in Pripyat’s abandoned Hotel Polissa

The Final Attraction – A Character Study
It was that Englishman who brought the tour to a memorable conclusion for me. One that has stuck in my memory ever since. We entered an abandoned, half ruined hotel in Pripyat. Several of us carefully made our way up a stairwell that was an obstacle course of trip hazards. One wrong step and a person could fall a couple of stories to what would most probably be a painful death. There were no barriers, either physical or mental in the place. One could go anywhere at their own risk and let their imagination run wild. I found myself standing on the precipice of an open shaft, looking down into an abyss of darkness. The Englishman came up beside me, looked around and suddenly said “just imagine being alone here in the dead of winter.” I peered down into the dark shaft nervously. Only later did I realize that here was the real attraction of the Chernobyl tour, fear and oblivion. That was what I had come to see and that was what I finally found.

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