The highlight of the whole trip is easily the Pripyat amusement park (pictured above). There is something about abandoned fun fair rides that really grabs my attention and imagination. For many years it was thought that this park, which was due to open on May Day, a few days after the explosion, was never used. In this post we will get to the bottom of this rumor and find out if that really is true. But before that let’s take some time to explore some of Pripyat’s schools.
There were many schools and kindergartens in Pripyat, I have visited three of them over my two trips. There is room after room, hall after hall, that are all empty. What hasn’t been removed by looters and vandals is slowly being devoured by nature itself. This made me feel a little emotional as it is such a tragic waste that this place will never teach or hear the voices of young children ever again. All of the corridors inside the schools were equally unsettling, with remnants of an ex-soviet regime scattered everywhere, and instructional posters and children’s gas masks littering the floors.
It’s easy to think that these gas masks in school #3 were available to residents in the hours after the disaster, however this is not the case. Most of Pripyat’s populous was unaware of the accident in the hours following and everyone was removed by buses and trains 36 hours later. Our guide explained that these gas masks were never used. They were all kept in underground storage at the school in case of a cold war Nuclear attack by the United States. Some time in the last 20 years looters brought the all gas masks out of storage and removed the silver filters these masks utilize and presumably sold the silver for scrap, the sea of gas masks on the school floor are the end result of this and not the accident in 1986.
After leaving the last school, we stopped by the city’s sports stadium, once home to a running track, football pitch and many other sports amenities. The stadium is just north of the amusement park. In the days after the accident, the stadium was used as a base to land helicopters employed to contain reactor fires and limit further radiation leaks at the CNPP. The open grounds also served as a landing hub for transporting the sick and wounded from the plant to the hospital. Needless to say that due to the presence of contaminated helicopters in the center of the stadium, radiation levels are high, leaving us only to safely walk around the perimeter.
Without a doubt the most interesting part of visiting Pripyat is the amusement park, located behind the Palace of Culture in the center of town. The park has four attractions: bumper cars, swing boats, a swing-carousel, and the iconic ferris wheel, which seems to be the most popular part of the tour for many people.
Whilst visiting the park the atmosphere takes on quite an eerie tone. On one hand you can hear almost nothing except the occasional breeze and maybe a few birds singing. On the other hand, you have this massive ferris wheel towering over you, and just by its skyscraping presence you expect it to be making some type of noise as if it were in use — maybe the motors underneath should be whirring away or the excited cheers of children as they enjoy this and the other park rides. The lack of sound whilst in the presence of such a monolithic structure makes you much more aware of the silence in the area, and at the same time, you’re always conscious of this giant standing over you. This is probably one of the most profound places to visit in the zone, and one that will stay with me forever.
Above Left: My photo in 2008. Right: Petr Vyhovsky/pripyat-city.ru
Radiation levels around the park vary greatly. For the most part, liquidators did an effective job of washing most of the radiation into the soil, so the concreted areas are relatively safe. Through all of my initial research, I thought the bumper car ride was one of the most contaminated areas. However, our guide pointed out that in fact the bumper cars are relatively clean. The areas around the edges — where leaves and moss have built up — is where most of the radiation is still residing near the surface. Our guide also pointed out a patch of moss, about ten feet away from the ride, that had extremely high levels for the area. Dosimeter readings over the spot (roughly one square meter in size) show 25 µSv/h, one of the most radioactive in the city. Most of this can be attributed to helicopter landings in the park during rescue and cleanup after the accident.
Interestingly, the amusement park was rumored to open on May 1, 1986, five days after the nuclear explosion took place. It has long been believed that these rides were never actually used, but it was brought to light recently that they had in fact been used at some point, as the images below will show. Some theories suggest the amusement park rides were opened early during the 36 hours before emergency evacuations to keep Pripyat residents distracted from the accident. No one seems to remember for sure. Archive photo’s below courtesy of Pripyat.com.
The amusement park is one part of the zone that will stay with me forever, its such a shame that these rides will never again be used by the children that lived here, they are left rusting now, as a monument to the old Soviet regime that played a part in their abandonment. On both my trips to the zone the park was always the last place we visited while in Pripyat, but the tour is not yet over, Part 3 is here, Look out for more images soon.