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Why People Want to Return to Pripyat

Visiting the exclusion zone is still considered a far from trivial touristic adventure and many people do not even know why would someone have a desire to go where radiation is still a threat to everything that lives. Why would a normal person decide to visit the territory ruined by one of the biggest technogenic catastrophes of the 20th century? The number one reason has to be the most banal curiosity.

Abandoned in 1986, the whole zone was evolving and changing without any interference from humanity. Only nature ruled this confined world protected from the outer world by radiation that seemingly does not harm the zone but either shields it from unnecessary attention. Over the course of decades, a completely new strangely isolated world of flora and fauna grew over the ruins of old towns and the NPP itself. Right in the middle of wild forests and bushes, a proud image of Pripyat is still visible from the sky. This town has two faces: one is covered with freshly grown grasses and forests and another looking like a photograph of an old era.

It is a naturally occurred sanctuary that has such strong charm that you simply have to see it with your own eyes. However, all those rational things do not explain a strange feeling that people who visited the place named the “Call of Pripyat”. That weird desire to visit the zone once again despite seeing it and knowing what lurks in shadows inside the exclusion zone.

 

Modern Tourism and Pripyat

Organizers of trips to the exclusion zone focus mostly on informing their guests about the contemporary condition of the territory and history of the tragic event that led to the explosion of the 4th reactor. One of the core motives of each trip is that we must “never forget”. Many guides believe that youngsters who witness empty ruins of dead cities will never allow something similar to happen. Pripyat for many is a monument and a slowly dying reminder that some mistakes cause unbelievable tragedies.

If you see the horrors of abandoned towns and feel the chill when entering half-destructed houses, you should be determined to prevent such catastrophes from happening ever again. However, terrifying images not only leave seeds of uneasiness but also make visitors fall in love with scenery. Despite realizing that we cannot let another Chernobyl happen, tourists become fascinated with ruined towns and love wondering around. Then, a constant search for similar experiences starts overwhelming them. Many return quickly. Some people visited the zone 10-15 times and still want to come again.

Guides and trip organizers usually highlight two important reasons that attract people to the exclusion zone:

  • The love for the post-apocalyptic setting.
  • The phenomenon of “time that stopped”.

The former is really important. This is seemingly one of the most frequent reasons for many younger visitors to come here and explore the zone.

 

What Is Post-Apocalyptic?

As the name suggests, this is a setting created by a technogenic catastrophe (or a natural disaster) on a global scale leaving the whole world in rubbles. Vast dead plains, burnt forests, and abandoned settlements. People wearing crude leather and scavenging for some leftovers of technology. The whole world slowly dying after a global even. Very often we are talking about places with traces of advanced infrastructure, huge urbanistic territories that were crawling with humans just some time ago. This is a fascinating for many idea that still attracts huge fanbases coming from all sorts of backgrounds. Another important thing is atmosphere and we are not talking about air. The feeling of loneliness is something that many crave for.

First waves of contemplating about living after a catastrophe came right after bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two towns wiped off the face of Earth. A bombardment that changed the course of history and ignited the fire of the Cold War. Back then writers and filmmakers started wondering how the world after a nuclear war would look like. New concepts and ideas formed into a collectively developing alternative reality that we tried to expand as a culture. It seemed that we naturally started understanding some key elements of post-apocalyptic world as a civilization and not as singular fans of the setting. Everyone knows how a cold nuclear wasteland would look like thanks to popular culture and references in media.

If you think about it, the whole exclusion zone is a form of a post-apocalyptic world. A vast territory where one of the most terrifying explosions happened and over 270 thousand people were forced to evacuate to a city erected to accommodate those who suffered from the aftermath of the catastrophe (yes, Soviets built a city called Slavutich for people who were evacuated from the zone and had nowhere to go). The abandoned territory “terraformed” into the infamous exclusion zone that does not welcome outsiders.

When you take a long look at images of Pripyat and Chernobyl, it is easy to imagine how the whole world can turn into something like that. A whole city with its roads, buses, hospitals, schools, and huge city blocks became a mere ghost of itself. Popular culture really loved this setting and tried turning it into something. Hundreds of sci-fi books, conspiracy theories, computer games, and many other forms of media embraced the setting of Pripyat and tried to make it accessible for wider audiences.

 

Time that Stopped

About 30 years ago, the time here froze. Humanity abandoned this place altogether at once leaving many instruments, machinery, and goods right there. Many places are still furnished with furniture and decorations of 1980s. The year 1986 is imprinted in the local environment forever. For many citizens of Russia and Ukraine this is like a weird nostalgia amusement park, a glimpse at history of that epoch. It feels like travelling through time. Touching objects that you have seen in old TV shows and magazines. Seeing infrastructure elements showcased in old movies. A museum that could compete with this place simply does not exist.

We still want to dive deep in this world and abandon our real world. The exclusion zone is a territory of freedom and a place that many fans of post-apocalyptic would be happy to visit any day of the week.

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The fact that tourism is soaring is well-known—between 1999 and 2016 the number of people opting for a foreign holiday doubled, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). As travellers embrace experiences, rather than just heading to the pool, visits to “dark tourism” sites have risen in tandem. This catch-all term includes sites of atrocities such as Auschwitz or Cambodia’s killing fields; nuclear disaster zones such as Chernobyl in Ukraine and the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan; and other morbid locations, such as the house where O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife was killed. The internet has raised awareness of such places; cheap flights have made them easier to get to.

 

Take Chernobyl. The nuclear disaster at a power plant in what is now Ukraine, in 1986, killed more than 30 workers, afflicted thousands with radiation poisoning and forced 180,000 Soviet citizens to abandon their homes. A decade ago Dominik Orfanus, a Slovakian journalist, visited Pripyat, a modern city turned into a ghost town by the explosion, and founded a tour company. The number of visitors to the “exclusion zone” has since jumped (from 7,191 in 2009 to 36,781 in 2016). An easing of government restrictions in 2011 and Ukraine’s hosting of the 2012 European football championship helped numbers swell further. CHERNOBYL.wel.come, Mr Orfanus’s company, is one of three such firms which, collectively, have more than 2,000 reviews on TripAdvisor, a travel-review website. It hands out shirts with slogans such as “Enjoy Chernobyl, die later”.

Commodifying Chernobyl can be justified by the passage of time and the fact that tourism is seen by locals as a boon to their stunted economy. Salem is also easy to commercialise because the deaths occurred so long ago. But recent tragedies demand greater sensitivity. Japanese authorities have banned tours to the vicinity of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown after an earthquake caused a tsunami that engulfed the coast in 2011, killing nearly 19,000 people. Local guides still take over 2,000 tourists each year to villages near the reactors.

 

Michael Frazier, of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, bristles at the word “attraction,” even though the museum charges admission, sells souvenirs and markets itself on its website as TripAdvisor’s “#2” of 1,055 Things to Do in New York City. It is also “#6” of the World’s Most Instagrammed Museums. Last year more than 3m visitors brought in $67m for the non-profit foundation that runs the museum.

At the 9/11 museum and at Auschwitz, crowds are controlled with carefully timed tours. At Chernobyl, however, sometimes “there are so many buses that all of a sudden the ghost town feels like Disneyland,” says Mr Orfanus. Carolyn Childs of MyTravelResearch.com, a research firm, sees plenty of room for thoughtful architecture firms and design consultancies to help sites walk the fine line between commemoration and commercialisation.

Death sells, says Philip Stone of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire. But most dark tourists seek meaning, not merely the macabre. His research into their motives reveals not so much oddballs ticking atrocities off a list as amateur scholars of human nature. The Salem Witch Museum tries to cater to such cerebral interest, casting witch-hunts as a staple of America’s political culture. It cites cases such as Japanese internment after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s scapegoating of alleged communists in the 1950s. A guide asks a crowd clad in black and orange to come up with modern parallels. The visitors leave deep in thought.

Walking through the site of one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

“We get people who come on the tour dressed in biohazard suits,” says Andrii Kryshtal. “They remember. And they’re afraid. But they still want to see.”

 

I’m standing outside of a preschool, its weedy yard strewn with broken children’s toys. In my pockets is a dosimeter, a device measuring radiation levels, and it rattles with shrill warning beeps as Kryshtal, one of the leaders with Chernobyl Tour, points to a nondescript patch of grass beneath a tree, off to the side of the walkway. “There is a high concentration of the element Americium here. We don’t know why it’s in this spot; perhaps a worker at the plant stomped his boots here before going inside to see his children.”

A shudder spreads through the group. Goosebumps and tears are frequent during a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reactions that come as guides relate the grim history of the area. On April 26, 1986, a safety test at the nuclear power plant went very wrong—a partial meltdown and explosion sent radioactive debris into the air, leading to the immediate, painful deaths of more than 40 first-responders and the prolonged suffering of thousands. The accident forced entire towns to abruptly empty out, and the area within a 19-mile radius of the plant was deemed uninhabitable for at least another 180 years.

 

Tourism is a newer industry for this region, only two hours away from Kiev in Ukraine. Chernobyl was absent from guidebooks until 2011, when the Ukrainian government decided to begin official tours, and cash in on a combination of the “#urbex” urban exploration trend and a return to “normal levels” of radiation in much of the area. As the tour websites note, an average single-day visit to the Exclusion Zone—even including a stop at the gates of reactor four—equals a radiation dose equivalent to one hour on an airplane, which is 160 times less than the dose from one chest X-ray. Don’t believe it? You can rent a personal dosimeter to keep track of of how much radiation you're exposed to during the visit.

Tours range from private visits to multi-day itineraries that include basic radiation survival training and visits with “self-settlers,” or the local residents, numbering only a couple hundred, who either refused to evacuate or secretly returned to live out the rest of their lives effectively off the grid, without access to utilities and public services. While it's technically illegal to live inside the borders of the Exclusion Zone, since 2012 Ukraine has permitted only elderly "self-settlers" to stay.

 

Pripyat, a town of nearly 50,000 residents hastily evacuated following the accident, is the most surreal stop of the tours, and the most Instagrammed. It's all eerily empty structures—everything from a sports stadium and hotel to apartment blocks and supermarkets. The city is a dusty time capsule—a necropolis of broken glass, rotting furniture, and peeling paint. Unsanctioned groups had long been sneaking visits prior to 2011, and so-called “stalkers” would steal away souvenirs—prying tilework from the walls and ripping down signage. “Every year more buildings collapse,” says another guide. We stand in what was once the city theater. I tap on my smartphone’s flashlight and wave it around, catching glimpses of disintegrating ceiling and floorboards, pausing on a stack of jarringly vivid portraits of local government leaders, decorations to be paraded through the town during the May Day celebrations that never happened. Nearby are the remains of an amusement park, bumper cars included, which was brand new and due to have its grand opening coincide with the holiday. The Chernobyl accident came first. The fun park never opened.[1]

There are no safety barriers or marked routes for the tours, which is part of the appeal. We are at liberty to explore, cautiously peering around corners and venturing down dark hallways. Every step reveals decline, destruction, and overgrowth. Nature is reclaiming Pripyat; elk and fox now prowl the neighborhoods.

 

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone isn’t completely quiet, though. Periodic forest fires have released radioactive fallout into the air and, in June, the power plant’s automated radiation monitoring systems and website were hit by the “Petya” cyber attack, a ransomware assault that encrypted hard drives and prevented computers from booting until a ransom was paid in Bitcoin.

And then there are the tourists. We step among the debris, taking photos and feeling, in turns, humbled, angered, and alarmed. The site stands as a monument to the havoc wreaked by hubris, obfuscation, and paranoia, all three elements magnifying the literal and figurative fallout from the accident. Earlier this year, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called Chernobyl "an unhealing wound that we live with as a people."

No TV documentary or textbook can deliver the profound reality check that comes from seeing it all for yourself, and I'm glad I did. I admit to cringing while stepping over torn book pages scattered on floors, and wondering how much longer the ephemeral personal belongings around Pripyat can withstand the parade of footsteps. But in addition to providing desperately needed investment and employment for the larger region, the tours are culturally important, preserving and sharing the factual epic of the accident and its consequences.

 

It's not a moment frozen in time, though. The eroding sarcophagus of reactor four has been replaced. Chernobyl doesn't even look like the image in my history textbook anymore.

[1] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site http://pripyat.com/articles/o-poezdkakh-po-nauchnomu-ili-pochemu-lyudi-stremyatsya-vernutsya-v-pripyat-i-zonu-otchuzhde