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USA Today: Pillaged and peeling, radiation-ravaged Pripyat welcomes 'extreme' tourists

Most people who visit Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone are interested in seeing the deserted city of Pripyat, a place full of decay, according to USA Today.

REUTERS
REUTERS

The Ukrainian government is increasingly promoting the zone as a place for "extreme tourism." A short drive away is Chernobyl city, a base for about 3,000 administrators, a handful of scientists and basic accommodations for visitors who choose to spend the night or longer in the zone. To limit radiation exposure, these workers spend 15 days inside the zone, 15 days out, U.K.-based journalist for USA Today Kim Hjelmgaard writes in an article titled "Pillaged and peeling, radiation-ravaged Pripyat welcomes 'extreme' tourists," published on April 17.

Walk very quickly through this one, don't linger or stop, because it's probably going to fall down soon, said Anton Yuhimneko, 30, USA TODAY's government-appointed escort to Ukraine's Exclusion Zone, a sealed area with a 20-mile radius around Chernobyl's nuclear power plant.

Poroshenko declares 2016 year of remembrance of liquidators, victims of Chernobyl disasterHe then took off down the hallway into a crumbling, abandoned school in Pripyat, a previously well-ordered city that in 1986 was home to about 50,000 people, many of them workers at the nearby power station.

"Soon?" I asked, when I caught up a few moments later. "Yes, probably soon, it's full of water," he said, pointing to the ceiling. "It will fall down very soon, but hopefully not on us."

I spent about 36 hours with Yuhimneko looking around the zone. His casualness bordered on foolhardiness.

"Very high statistical error," he would say when I occasionally mentioned the numbers were creeping up on my cheap Russian-made Geiger counter that records radiation levels. His response was always the same. First, he would pat the Geiger counter in his pocket. Then he'd throw me a frustrated look and say: "What you have is no good. High statistical error."

No matter what I asked, his reply was often: "Because the level of radiation is not very high."

Earlier, our car was being chased by what appeared to be a pack of rabid dogs that lingered near the area where a new cover is being built to house Chernobyl's melted down reactor No. 4.  Yuhimneko just turned his head slowly toward me and said about the dogs: "They are crazy. This is normal for Chernobyl." We didn't get out of the car.

"This is normal for Chernobyl" was his second favorite phrase.

He repeated the expression again as we toured a dilapidated swimming pool that he said was used as recently as 1997 — 11 years after the accident — by workers involved with the Chernobyl cleanup. "They swam in it? With all this radiation around? Wasn't that a little risky?" I asked.

He conceded the point.

Still, as we walked quickly through the school hallways in Pripyat, even Yuhimneko seemed a little disturbed about spending too much time in a building that might collapse "soon." I wanted to hear more about how he had determined the time frame, but he changed the subject.

"It’s good that it’s raining," he said. "No radioactive dust." A few zone regulars had told me the exact opposite.

Pripyat was built on a green field in 1970 and was by all accounts a decent place to live despite the autocratic Soviet rule. It was evacuated 16 years later on April 27, 1986, the day after the accident.

Before the disaster, it had more than 13,000 apartments, schools for 5,000 children, two dozen stores and cafes, a cinema, sports hall, cultural center, several factories and a hospital. It had 18,136 trees; 249,247 shrubs; and 33,000 rose bushes, according to the website Pripyat in Numbers.

After all the people left, Pripyat for years was a snapshot of a planned Soviet town frozen in time: 16-story residential apartment buildings filled with well-preserved posters, toys and stopped clocks; portraits and statues of Vladimir Lenin; a ghostly amusement park slated to open May 1, 1986, for the annual May Day celebrations, that never got the chance. A place teeming with embodiments of the hammer and sickle, the symbol of Soviet power.

Looters have since stripped it bare. There are still the risks of radiation, although the levels have decreased considerably over the past 30 years. There's also broken glass, rusty nails, unsupported floors and roofs that will probably fall down "soon." In Pripyat, trees grow out of the windows of buildings.

Eventually, we found the classroom Yuhimneko was looking for.

One corner had a pile of several hundred miniature gas masks. Behind that was a row of collapsed sinks for washing small hands. A scruffy table held a decades-old television with the screen punched out. Next to that was a rusting, old-fashioned cash register. The table also held a book of Russian poetry, open to page 236, and an empty glass milk bottle. It was all unbearably tragic and post-apocalyptic. And I am pretty sure they were all props.

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