I’m standing in a rusting playground. There is an intact Ferris wheel to my right. I half expect to hear children shriek for their parents as their carriage climbs higher – then I remember where I am.
My guide has a rough voice and a strong Ukrainian accent. He tells me about Chernobyl and the ill-fated town of Pripyat, and he delivers a sombre reminder of the events that happened here in April 1986. Guided by him, I nervously enter the exclusion zone.
Outside, wildlife roams free, and some residents have returned. Inside the sports centre, I begin to feel glad that I’m the shortest person here as the remains of ceiling insulation dangle dangerously. There is no water in the 1970s pool, which appears decrepit, but it’s not difficult to imagine it filled with children splashing and adults completing endless lengths. We’re surrounded by remnants of their active lives, and parts of this centre are still intact. The diving board shows no sign of falling, the entry ladder is still in place, and a handful of sandals are in a pile by the open door. I wonder who owned those shoes. I wonder if the smell of chlorine still lingers. Only my imagination conjures what it might have been like to swim in what was once considered a grand sporting centre. I’ve been transported into the hell that once housed life. Children, laughter, leisure in the Soviet era – the past is alive in the relics you wouldn’t usually find spread all over the floor.
In the gym, only the hoops and nets are missing from the basketball boards. I’m surprised. I can’t think of many abandoned rooms I have entered in which their original facilities still stand. In the accurately named ‘School Number Three,’ posters have fallen to the floor, windows are dirty, and it’s impossible to walk without treading on pages from textbooks that are strewn over the floor. I’ve seen these plus children’s toys in deserted buildings, old radios, and rusting hospital beds. Most museums have period remains neatly contained in glass boxes, but this isn’t an ordinary museum.
Ordinary museums don’t have staff members who shuffle past with Geiger counters. How high are their devices reading? Everything I have read about the history of this place is coming to life. The sense of danger dawns on me and I become concerned for the wellbeing of the staff, who delve deeper into the inanimate parts of this place than I do. So many people died here, and so many more have died since. The radiation is so prevalent in places that I’m told that if I drop my phone on the floor, I shouldn’t take it home. The threat now too real, I grasp my phone tightly. The idea of touring here, even now, delights and terrifies me.
But of course, I am not really here. It’s 2020, and the world has stopped moving. My more realistic trips are not considered essential travel. Instead, this is how we find wanderlust while the lockdown confines us to our living rooms: virtually. I’m exploring Chernobyl using a standalone VR device, the now discontinued Oculus Go. With 360 vision, audio displays and signs constructed at notable locations – and with a little imagination, I could be wandering through the real, troubled nuclear power plant.
HISTORY OF CHERNOBYL
The Chernobyl nuclear power station in Pryp’yat (sometimes written as Pripyat), in what is now northern Ukraine. At the time, the area was part of the Soviet Union.
During a test, staff at the plant shut down the emergency systems while allowing the reactor to run. A massive explosion occurred, blowing off the reactor’s roof and leading to the uncontrolled release of radioactive material. The town was quietly evacuated until the government were forced to publicly admit the accident. Evacuations continued during a clean-up and an effort to contain the disaster. Despite this, thirty-one people died in the weeks after the explosion, followed by a high number of deaths and cancers in the decades since the accident in many surrounding countries. A large exclusion zone was created around the power plant and later expanded. Recently, as radiation levels in some areas have decreased, restricted tour companies have been allowed to enter the area.
Sources: Britannica; Nuclear Energy Agency.
GETTING THERE VIRTUALLY
The Chernobyl VR project, released in 2016, is available from £3.99 on Oculus, Playstation, Samsung, and HTC platforms. It was created by The Farm 51 Group.
GETTING THERE IN REAL LIFE
Several tours exist, like these from Chernobyl Travel, which start from £80. All tours involve monitoring radiation levels using a dosimeter. They also involve strict rules for the safety of all participants. These tours are well reviewed and legal. However, no tour will run until after the COVID-19 lockdowns have been eased.
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