Visiting Pripyat

Whenever anyone thinks of visiting Chernobyl, what they think of often isn’t the power plant itself. Rather, it’s the pictures and video they’ve seen of the nearby town covered in trees, where weeds and vines have pushed through the cement roads and pretty much swallowed up the concrete of the tower blocks. And the fairground. (It’s always the bloody fairground). In addition, many people may recognise or associate it from playing too much Call Of Duty 4. This is Pripyat, and to be fair it is the most interesting reason to go.

What is the history of Pripyat?

The town itself was founded in early 1970, and there’s a sign on the way in that really leans into this period of typographic style. It’s a huge sculptured rendition of its name in a very 1960s/1970s ‘futuristic’ font – if you look at many posters of the 1960s, especially from the Soviet Bloc, you’ll very much strongly get a sense of this futurism. It looks painfully nostalgic now, as future-setting often does.

The word 'Pripyat', in cyrillic lettering, is sculpted on what looks not unlike a representation of an anvil. Someone is inconveniently standing in front of the year that represents the founding of the city, but it looks like a stylised '1970'.
The ‘Pripyat’ sign, on the outskirts of the city
It’s named after the nearby river, whose etymology isn’t known with 100% certainly but Wikipedia tells me the dominant explanation is a word meaning, simply, ‘tributary’ – it flows into the Dnieper, one of the major rivers of Ukraine (and indeed the fourth longest river in Europe, for a given a definition of Europe).

Incidentally, there seems to be a small belief Pripyat was built in the days immediately before the explosion, and the town had only just been settled when it was evacuated. This is simply not true. However, what does seem to be true is the iconic fairground, of which more later, hadn’t been officially opened by the time of the explosion – this was scheduled for the May Day celebrations the following Thursday.

Pripyat was built specifically to serve the power plant at Chernobyl, which is only a couple of km away. This was generally the way the Soviets designed places – they saw a need for an industry (in this case, energy), built a factory or other industrial complex to take advantage of that need (in this case, a power plant), then built a town to serve that complex (in this case, Pripyat). The Soviet Union was full of towns and cities like this, places built specifically to harness mining, shipbuilding, space exploration, nuclear warfare, steel-making, pretty much anything which would give them a boost in their rivalry with the West.

Panorama of Pripyat, taken from above. There are tower blocks visible, but they're just poking out above the canopy of trees, like a series of swimmers in the sea of green.
Pripyat from above
Unsurprisingly, most of these places were designated ‘closed cities’ – places completely closed off to foreigners and where even Soviet citizens needed specific permissions to go, generally not officially listed on maps, and given names in ‘public’ (insomuch as anything public was revealed about them) like Chelyabinsk-40 to obfuscate them even more. If a railway passed through them, there are tales of the train crew closing and securing the blinds, and not making any announcements on the tannoy, Some of them are still closed, incidentally; including Chelyabinsk-40, which is now called Ozyorsk and is a big nuclear weapons site.

You *can* visit Pripyat. Though probably only because a) it’s in Ukraine, and b) it blew up.

How many people lived in Pripyat?

The reported population of Pripyat at the time of the explosion was just under 50,000 people. Which makes it about the same size as Dunfermline (Scotland), Durham (England), or the urban area of Midland, Michigan (USA).

Its current population is officially zero.

Is Pripyat safe to visit?

In the sense of ‘is Pripyat still radioactive’, yes it’s safe to visit. Just be aware some things hold radioactivity longer than others, as you’ll read later. Being there isn’t dangerous at all; what’s dangerous is some interactions with the environment. Take precautions, and if in doubt don’t touch anything.

At the time of writing, the biggest danger is Russian/Belarusian attacks.

What does Pripyat look like?

One of the first things you notice about Pripyat and the exclusion zone is that it’s not entirely empty. Animals don’t acknowledge human boundaries unless there’s impenetrable barriers which have completely blocked an area off. For instance, the area around the Pripyat sign is popular with horses, who gambol on the railway line. I don’t know how many trains still use that railway line but they don’t seem to care.

A series of horses standing by, on, and either side of, a single-track railway line.
Horses on the other side of the road from the Pripyat sign. We didn’t approach each other
The town itself looks exactly as you expect and imagine, having seen the pictures and videos. They’ve not been doctored or photoshopped. I mean maybe they have but they don’t really need to have been, and indeed it probably looks even more Pripyatty now then even they show. It’s a great control cell in a way to demonstrate what would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from the world, as per the TV series “Life After People”.

One of the main streets of Pripyat, or what used to be. The picture shows a long, straight, cement road, no road markings, broken, littered with weeds, and the trees on either side of the road are stretching into it. They are also tall enough to mostly hide the buildings further back and ahead.
(What used to be) One of the main roads in Pripyat centre
Even as soon as entering the town in our minivan it was clear this was a truly abandoned place, by humans at least – a long cement road lined with huge trees either side, littered with weeds and trees literally growing through the road surface. And even though it’d only been 30 years since the accident when I went, they well towered above me. At some point they might turn into an air traffic control hazard.

How long until Pripyat falls down?

Pripyat itself was built out of concrete, mainly, and, without maintenance, that tends to have a lifespan of around 100 years. However, there’s a large lack of structural integrity here. There are trees growing through many of the walls and foundations of the buildings. In addition, it’s s in a region that gets cold, snowy winters so ice will form, expand, melt, and crack the concrete still further. It’s thus likely many of the buildings will collapse much sooner. Indeed some of them are already too dangerous to visit inside.

We went in them anyway. But that was nearly ten years ago.

What is Pripyat’s Fairground like?

Out of everywhere in the city, the fairground is the one spot everyone seems to recognise and associate with Pripyat. Especially the Big Wheel. It is just as eerie as you imagine, and I’m kind of surprised the rusted joints haven’t snapped yet. The cabins at the top of the wheel are (were!) above the tree-line, and would have been the best view of the city at the time. The wheel itself definitely looks iconic, stationary yet still clearly identifiable in the trees and the broken cement. The payment kiosk was still present on my visit, though obviously no longer serving any purpose.

The iconic big wheel of Pripyat Fairground – still just taller than the trees around it. All the cabins seem to be still attached but the mechanism is clearly broken. The cabins are bright yellow against the clear sky.
Arguably the most famous site in Pripyat
Nearby was what remained of the dodgem car stall. While the roof itself had long gone, it was clear to see where it had been as the metal framework that supported it was still in place – no longer protecting the cars from the elements but patiently waiting for a hood to return. What remains of the ceiling is now in broken debris on the weed-covered ground, The dodgem cars themselves are still present, still coloured in vibrant greens and yellows tho this is fading and chipping off. They’re all stopped in position, a couple going to the grave in a permanent nose-boop position like all good dodgem cars should be. The steering wheels are present but long-since broken off and lying in the passenger seat like a bad date.

A series of dodgem cars, rusting in the open air. One still has its connection mechanism to the roof, but there is no roof any more. Two in the foreground are head-to-head, forever nose-booping. The ground is a mass of fallen leaves, moss, weeds, and twig.
The dodgem cars in Pripyat’s fairground
Other fairground rides were equally as derelict, including what remained of a whirligig-type ride, only the bare metal frame once again remaining but clearly identifiable as a place where lunch returns to irk its consumer. On the ground nearby was the remains of a leather boot cast aside on the floor – maybe it had fallen off its owner on one of the more vibrant rides. This is no longer a place to be shoeless though; the debris and broken fixtures & fittings will put paid to that idea. There was also a swing, again just the ghostly outline in steel bone, nothing attached to it any more – what had been there had fallen to the floor and broken apart long ago.

What are the tower blocks in Pripyat like?

The tower blocks themselves are standard-issue for the time and place, and all generally look the same from outside, The only difference is the height – some only rise to five storeys, while others climb above the trees and reach up to the mid-teens. Inside they’re all much of a muchness. In a way they’re reminiscent of the tenement blocks in Glasgow, although they look substantially different. Fundamentally it’s the same kind of principle – a little basic but pretty comfortable, and all built to the same standard.

One of the many apartment blocks in Pripyat. This one is five storeys high, quite long, and with a very plain white exterior. Each flat has a small balcony. There are trees growing very close and slightly up it, but not through the walls, yet.
A low-rise apartment building in Pripyat
Everyone lives in the same type of flat, following very socialist and utilitarian principles, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. All mod cons are included, including bookshelves, cooking facilities, and a TV. There’s enough space to not feel cramped, and bear in mind the ‘target market’ (if such a concept would exist in a planned economy) for these flats would be, generally, a married couple with a kid, a worker and a housewife, they’d’ve had a comfortable life here. Doubly so as they’d’ve been transferred here and the idea would have been to make as much a nice environment as possible, hence the fairground.

Inside one of the apartments. It's a rectangular room, plain walls, large window on the far wall, remains of a chair frame on the floor, and a 1980s television set standing on four thin peg-legs. The floor is bare and littered with what I assume is fallen plaster.
Inside a standard apartment in Pripyat
On my visit, we went into one of the 15 storey blocks, and had a wander through it. It was all looted and quite derelict, with nothing much left of any provenance, In one flat someone had left a shoe – not that there’s a pattern here. In another the TV remained, and in a third was a broken and dusty piano, which seemed a bit highbrow for a Soviet worker flat, to be honest; I’d’ve thought they’d’ve been more prevalent in the communal areas, There was broken glass everywhere and certainly nothing would have worked even if there’d been power. Not even the lifts – it was better to stay far away from the lift shaft. The remains of a creature, probably a dog, were present in one room – evidently it had wandered up and not been able to get back out. This was presumably some years after the evacuation.

Now, I said about the potential views from the top of the big wheel. *The* best views of Pripyat are from the top of the large tower blocks where everyone lived. I’m almost certain this isn’t a view that people could have got at the time, nor is it a view I feel you can get any more, because of health & safety reasons.

Looking down at the side and roof of one of the low-rise apartment blocks, and how it's fitting quite snug in the trees, which are almost as tall as it.
Looking down at an apartment block in Pripyat
The view is well above the treeline, the town below looked almost elvish, in the sense there were buildings almost hidden amongst the newly-grown forest. I think the phrase ‘nestled quaintly’ was created for this very situation, to be honest. And the extent of the forest was clear to see – apart from the power plant itself, and, in the far distance, a weird metallic-frame structure visible on the horizon, all that was visible was green treetops. It must be said there were few guard-rails or anything like that on the rooftop, so standing near the edge was … not advisable.

What other buildings can you visit in Pripyat?

A tour of Pripyat will take you to a number of the buildings. My tour could go *in* a few of them, though as I say I don’t know how that would be now as no-one’s doing maintenance of them so they are literally falling down.

As befits a town of its size and importance, Pripyat had many buildings that served the community. One of the first we went to was a large supermarket. As you might expect, the place was quite ruinous and debris-stricken. The aisle shelving was upturned and broken, having been smashed into the concrete floor. Much of the infrastructure was still in place and identifiable, even down to the remnants of the overhead signage, though what it had once said is not something I’d be able to tell you.

Inside what used to be a supermarket in Pripyat. The shelving and its attachments are scattered on the floor but the signs hanging from the ceiling that tell you what each aisle was are still there
Inside the supermarket. I’ve already found the cottage cheese aisle
Other facilities were in similar levels of disrepair. The university had a lecture room that was still identifiable, with terraced pews heading down a slope towards a central stage. That said it very much looked as though the roof had literally caved in with how much of it was present on the seating. For some reason there was also a piano present, though whether it worked or not we don’t know.

The hospital and doctor surgery still had health posters and opening times on the wall, and doctor’s ledgers with information written on them, not too faded even after thirty years. The waiting room still had chairs along the walls, empty, waiting in vain for new patients to sit and be checked up for, I don’t know, signs of leukaemia or something. For some reason there was also a rusting bike frame on the floor – maybe one of the last patients had cycled to see a doctor.

As a side note, the group had a couple of Geiger counters, more for ‘oh that’s a big number’ selfies than anything else, but it was in the hospital we made use of them. Some medical clothing had remained – nothing more than a discarded piece of cloth or fabric, but the Geiger counters recorded figures that suggested wearing it for more than five minutes would kill you. Evidently radioactivity stays longer in clothing than the natural environment.

A quite blurry picture of a Geiger counter being held above a piece of cloth. The counter reads 21.41, which is apparently quite dangerous.
Evidence of radioactivity still exists in some places
Other buildings had scattered paintings of Soviet leaders, copies of Pravda dated to the days around the explosion, broken and empty vending machines whose wares had long since been pilfered – though whether that had been before or after their use-by dates is anyone’s guess; I’d suggest their ‘best before’ dates would have been realistically specifically ‘the time of the disaster’. Outside in the streets were the occasional shopping trolleys, long since warped and no longer usable, not even as makeshift dodgems.

A shopping trolley lies on its side in amongst the weeds and detritus.
I mean, it still has wheels so I suppose you could still use it
We also went into one of the schools – a precarious journey even at the time of my visit and I’d suggest it’s probably no longer accessible due to trees and the sheer fragility of the structure. There were many rooms across several floors, but all felt generally the same – murals on the walls, textbooks and exercise books left where they’d fallen, desks littered with the schoolwork children had been working on at the time of the evacuation, still open at the pages they’d been using.

One of the classrooms in one of the schools in Pripyat. A series of wooden desks, wide enough for two people, are covered with fallen plaster, posters, and open books
One of the classrooms; you can definitely tell what it used to be
Some of the rooms had the remains of educational posters, lesson plans, and even orange chalkboards with whatever the teachers had been talking about still written on them. One room had children’s paintings and other art, another pictures of the natural world (mainly animals), a third a 3-dimensional map of the Soviet Union. In amongst the debris too were vinyl records, presumably Soviet nursery rhymes or some such, There was also a large collection of gas masks on the floor of a couple of the rooms; apparently this was a later addition to the mess rather than being relevant to the immediate matters at hand.

On a wall is a chalkboard or blackboard, one with doors that open out or close to cover it. They are open. On the board are written words in Cyrillic. The walls are peeling very badly.
I don’t know what it says though
Elsewhere in the town were the sports facilities. In Glasgow is a stadium called Cathkin Park – the pitch is still used but the terracing is full of trees, The stadium here was kind of the opposite, in that the terracing was largely clear, if a bit weedy, and you could easily still walk up and down it to find a place to sit, while the pitch was lost in overgrowth. Above part of the terracing there was still a stone roof in place, providing some shelter for the dignitaries. Outside, the turnstiles were firmly shut but as the fences either side had long since gone, they weren’t holding back any crowds desperate to watch a match.

Walking through Pripyat stadium just in front of the terracing. The seating is still visible and accessible, as is a 'box' with a roof for VIPs or officials, but the arena itself is full of trees.
I don’t know what sport you’d be watching – tree-climbing, maybe?
Nearby was the sports hall, containing a basketball court with hoops still present, but no balls, and the swimming pool – last used by the clean-up brigade I believe (though it may have been used by subsequent staff passing through around the turn of the century). It looked really weird to see an empty pool – specifically to see clearly how the floor slopes down from the shallow to the deep end. It’s not a gradual thing here; the shallow end had a flat bottom then it suddenly drops sharply. I avoid swimming pools in general so I don’t know if that’s common. Still present poolside were the diving board, the timing clock, and the changing rooms, though I doubt any of them would be usable again.

The empty swimming pool in Pripyat. The tiling is still mostly intact, and it's clear where the shallow end is as the floor is flat for a bit until a certain point where it sharply slopes downwards. The steps into the pool are still visible too.
An empty swimming pool is a very eerie-looking thing
Each tour apparently takes a slightly different route depending on conditions. Sadly for me we didn’t get to visit the railway station, which I’ve been informed contains numerous abandoned carriages and wagons, but I was more than happy with what I did get to experience. Instead, our tour went to the nearby Duga Array, the radar station that the power plant was mainly built to serve.

Why is Pripyat derelict?

It is important, very important in fact, to note that although the town is pretty much a decrepit, derelict, demolished hulk, none of the actual damage was done at the time. Indeed most of the residents didn’t even know anything had happened. This wasn’t a Hiroshima-type event causing regional-wide destruction; the vast majority of the danger was through invisible radiation, the fires at the plant never reaching much beyond the reactor itself. Rather, the look and feel of the town is caused mostly by the effects of nature reclaiming a town having been abandoned, and a little bit by ongoing looting in the years afterwards. Remember that most of the townspeople left their possessions behind as their evacuation was meant to be temporary, so a good chunk of people’s stuff was effectively left in unguarded, empty, properties.

So the reason there’s very few items of value or use in the town and every building is empty is because in the years after the explosion, people nicked it all.

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