Sunrise in Pripyat? Why not! I've been to Pripyat so many times, in different seasons, day and night. It's finally time to greet the city at the break of day. I get up before 4 in the morning and at 5 I'm already standing on the roof of a 16 storey building which has an excellent view of the town centre and nearby power plant.
Sleepy Pripyat slowly emerges from the shadows and comes to life. A strange feeling. As if any moment now people will appear, hurrying on their way to work. Or mothers taking kids to kindergarten. Soon there will be hustle and bustle, the noise of cars, and shouts of children playing. But that's just my imagination at work. In the abandoned city, nature is the only thing springing to life. Everything else died 28 years ago.
But Pripyat isn't the main reason I returned to the zone. For some time I've been coming here less often and for shorter times. There is just one reason. Pripyat is systematically falling apart. Plaster is falling off of buildings, concrete and bricks are crumbling, then the floors rot and collapse. In the end whole walls and ceilings collapse. The books, newspapers and posters left inside them turn into a pile of damp mush. The city is disappearing.
Tourists who come for the first time and often only visit the zone generally aren't able to notice the changes, the progress of the destruction, the ever decreasing number of objects. It looks to them like time stopped here. That's just an illusion.
In my search for traces of the past, I’ve been leaving Pripyat more often and getting farther and farther away from it. I venture into unknown regions of the zone. I know from experience that the farther away, the more chance there is of finding something truly exceptional.
That's why I decide to visit more far-flung places in the northern corners of the zone. Villages located right by the border with Belarus. 40 km in one direction, two hours drive. Regular tourists don't make it here. Initially asphalt, the potholed roads soon give way to narrow, overgrown dirt roads. Eventually there are no roads at all. It's only possible to go farther with an off-road vehicle. Scattered trees, dense foliage, no sign of any human presence. And animals are appearing more and more often. The marshy terrain, uninhabited by people, is the ideal place for deer, moose, wild boars and a multitude of birds.
I'm looking for interesting places, objects, traces of the bygone system. It's easiest to find them in abandoned schools, kindergartens and clubs. In places that tourists haven't discovered, only known by former residents. Some of them still visit the places they used to live. They regularly stick calendars with the passing years up in empty homes. They leave inscriptions on school desks as souvenirs.
All the larger villages have a school. You just have to spot them through the dense vegetation. Experience comes in handy: the school is most often located on Lenin street – the main street of every village. You can spot schools more easily if you know that they're usually made of brick rather than wood. Then it's just a matter of luck – if the school has stood the test of time, the roof hasn't caved in or the glass hasn't been broken you can still find real gems from the bygone era.
THE RED FOREST
I've already written about the Red Forest while looking for radioactive remains of the power plant disaster. To recap – as a result of the catastrophe, radioactive isotopes entered the atmosphere from the reactor and were distributed by the air stream over a significant portion of Europe. Most of these fell near the power plant, contaminating tens of thousands of nearby trees. Most of these are located directly next to the power plant. All the coniferous trees (trunks) in this area died and their needles turned red. Hence the name Red Forest. Shortly after the catastrophe, the decision was made to cut down and bury all the dead trees. Leaving them posed a risk of re-distributing the radiation, for example, as a result of a fire or high traffic of cars passing by the forest. Cutting down and burying the trees also significantly decreased the background radiation which is currently around 20-30 uSv/h.
Despite the fact that almost 30 years have passed since the catastrophe, the Red Forest is still one of the most radioactive places in the zone. The last time I was here I found a highly radioactive fragment (around 100 mSv/h) pretty easily, which was probably a fragment of graphite from reactor 4.
This time I'm checking the place where the radioactive trees were buried. It's easy to identify the burial place – the long, brown ditches and the mounds sticking up above ground level are clearly visible on satellite pictures.
As I get closer to the burial location of the trees, the background radiation increases, reaching a level of around 100 uSv/h. It reaches its maximum, around 200 uSv/h, several metres away, where rainwater flowing from the mounds and washing radioactive isotopes with it gathers in the troughs.
In the Red Forest I happen to come across a building where there are several well-preserved objects.
I've visited the Chernobyl-2 military complex, where the DUGA over-the-horizon radar is located, many times. This time I'm visiting two places that are inextricably linked to it. Overgrown roads that are now impossible to see and can only be navigated by off-road vehicle or on foot lead to them.
The first of these is the auxiliary DUGA radar system, known as Krug. It consists of 240 antennae (each 12 metres high), laid out in two circles with a diameter of 300 metres. In the centre of the construction there is a one-storey building which serves as control centre, on the roof of which is the main antenna. Despite the fact that there is no longer any equipment in the building that would make it possible to tell what the complex is for, it's generally known that its task was to optimise the angular frequency modes of the over-the-horizon radar's operation. Supposedly the equipment used was so sensitive that it could detect a signal that had already been around the world twice.
After approaching the antennae, it turns out that 120 antennae, in one circle, have already been dismantled and are lying beside the concrete foundations they once stood on. Some of them have already been cut up for scrap. The majority of the 120 antennae, making up the second – outer – circle and the net serving as wave reflectors, are still in very good condition.
Over the significant amount of time that has passed, all the antennae have been almost completely hidden by trees, making it hard to see more than one at a time. You can only see all of them at once from the air, best in the autumn when the leaves have fallen off the trees.
ANTI-AIRCRAFT DEFENSE SYSTEM
The second object near Chernobyl-2 is the firing position of the defence missile squadron, built for anti-aircraft defence of the DUGA radar complex. The system consisted of 6 SM-90 rocket launchers which were disguised and surrounded by earthen ramparts, equipped with Volkhov S-75M missile sets placed in a circle around a centrally located missile homing station.
While nearby the over-the-horizon radar, I decide to also check its height. Different sources give different results. With this purpose in mind, I climb up the side mast which the net serving as wave reflector is attached to. It's the same height as the mast supporting the antenna. The official height reading is 156 metres (including the top mast).