“There’s silence in the air, there’s silence in the ground. A presence moving through the rivers in the moonlight. Desolation all around. The wind blows through abandoned buildings, photos scattered on the floors, possessions of a vanished population. Safe haven for my soul.” – Tim Wheeler (Ash)
Of course, it wasn’t the song from my favourite Northern Irish rock band Ash that gave me inspiration to visit the sad city of Pripyat. I always meant to visit Pripyat, it was a trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that I had waited a long time for. Having been to all the countries that surround Ukraine, it wasn’t until late 2015 that I finally made it here. For the record Ukraine borders Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Transnistria and Russia. The most notable of those experiences in my personal case was when I toured Bobruisk in Belarus in 2007, at the time I was only 40 kilometres from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Until you’ve backpacked your way to lonely empty Pripyat, it’s pretty hard to understand what really happened at Chernobyl.
The day so far had seen us leave Kiev behind, cross into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone at Dityatki, tour the actual town of Chernobyl, visit the Duga Radar System, backpack through lonely Kopachi and get up close to the culprit – Reactor Number 4. Now it was time to visit the craziest city of the day. Pripyat. This is a truly sad and creepy place. Every part of the day was grim, dark and forlorn. That’s to be expected when you backpack your way through the top sights of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This ain’t no pleasure cruise boys. One of the saddest parts of the tour is of course the visit to the city of Pripyat.
About Pripyat, Ukraine (Soviet Union in 1986)
Pripyat was once the beating heart and entrepreneurial cool city in this region. It was affluent and all the USSR locals who aspired to have some money and a good standard of living longed to move to Pripyat. There was lots of work nearby of course – at the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and away from that, hotels and local businesses thrived here. It’s ironic that Pripyat went from being one of the most sought after places in the former Soviet Union to live to being a place where nobody wanted to live. A place where nobody could live, any more. The mighty have fallen. Spare a thought for Pripyat’s fall from grace.
Pripyat has appeared in the afforequoted Ash song and in computer games, apparently. When I mentioned to friends and family I was going there, they spoke of some computer game I’ve never heard of that included Pripyat in it. In its dialect, it writes itself in Ukrainian: При́п’ять, Prýp’jat′ and Russian: При́пять, Prípyat, the fact remains – Pripyat is an abandoned city in northern Ukraine, very close to the border with Belarus. It encompasses all the horrific D-words you can think of: dull, dark, desolate, deserted, dreary, drab, doomed, dead, deadly, devilish and I could go on…
Named after the nearby Pripyat River, Pripyat is a custom built city – made from scratch and founded in February 1970. It was the ninth such “Nuclear City” in the Soviet Union, it officially became a city in 1979 and had reached just shy of 50,000 residents by the time it was evacuated, within days after the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. These days, the city sits in complete ruins and is one of the most horrific places from my travels so far, up there with Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors in Iraq and the Torture Chambers of Cambodia. Pripyat is currently supervised by Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergencies, which manages activities for the entire Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Visits to the city are strict and few and far between – 35 tourists per day maximum make the sad trip out here. You need a permit, you need to be on a tour. On a cold December day in 2015, there were 3 in our group and 4 in another group and that was it.
Arrival in Pripyat
After visiting Reactor Number 4, it’s time for the drive to Pripyat. On the way to Pripyat, there is a city sign with the year 1970 on it. The city was built and formed in 1970 as the ninth “Nuclear City”, i.e. it was custom built to serve the nearby nuclear power plant, the infamous Chernobyl. Before the power plant, there was a river and some people living here but no big city. Pripyat was built from scratch.
There is a checkpoint and a gate on the way into Pripyat. These are all my own photos by the way (no fakes here) and as you can see the place looks grey, dark, grim, grimey, horrible. That’s exactly the feeling you get as you arrive at the gates. Our guide Misha hands over the relevant documents and the guard opens the gate and we are now inside the area where the city of Pripyat once thrived. There are no bright colours in sight. The place has all the makings of a disaster zone. The roads remain intact and it looks like a city where nobody has lived in for thirty years. Oh yeah, that’s exactly what it is. No welcome to Pretty Pripyat signs, no postcards, no fast food outlets and nothing short of a vacant city with a ghostly ghastly appearance.
Downtown Pripyat – Top Sights
We have two different parts of the tour in Pripyat. First of all we are backpacking our way through the downtown area. Here is where swanky hotels, restaurants, a cinema and a huge cultural building sit. Yes, the buildings are all still here. It’s just that they’ve been looted, abandoned and left to ruin. There are four of us backpacking our way through the main sights of central Pripyat. There is no map and no tourist guide book here. The city of Pripyat doesn’t shine in the morning sun. Here in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, they’ve even been deprived the right of their morning sun. A grey misty foggy cloudy bombscare sky gapes down on us. Perhaps Oasis were wrong…
“The sun will shine on you again” – Noel Gallagher
And with our guide Misha, a local, we work our way through the main sights of the city. Like the idea or loathe the idea, this was my adventure in abandoned Pripyat.
We park on the main street through the city. There is no car park, you park where you want. There are also no cars or buses here – they were buried, destroyed, scrapped or even looted and used elsewhere. The main avenue has seen better days, naturally.
When I Google Search for the Main Street in Pripyat, there’s a deep and sad irony. My tour company, Solo East comes up number one…
The Main Street is, was, named after Lesya Ukrainka, a female activist and well known poet. It’s a sad state of affairs and we drive along it, dander within it and ponder on what might have been.
2.The Palace of Culture: Disco
There’s no Britney Spears or Freddie Mercury classics belting out as we head to the main disco and dancefloor inside the prominent “Palace of Culture“, which is also named Energetik. A hint of double entendre and irony yet again here, a play on words or just due to the proximity of the Nuclear Power Station. Again, Noel Arms and No Sir Prizes, the place is carnage personified.
The Palace of Culture is in the main Lenin Square of Pripyat, your guide will more than likely take you here, but make sure you get it on your itinerary. It looks like it was once the place to be for the Pripyat people, the Soviets, the Ukrainians and the Belarussians back in the day. We walk through the main dance floor. Nobody cuts a Wacko Jacko Moonwalk style bit of rug. At times though, it’s as empty as the moon and we walk. Rubble, glass, wires, everywhere.
Again forget whacking your Google page onto “best hotels in Pripyat” and pumping out an Agoda or Booking.com reservation for your war reluctant soul. The city’s tallest building is an abandoned hotel called Hotel Polissia. You can’t sleep or stay here, permit or not. You may not last the night.
Hotel Polissia has to be one of the largest hotels in the world that hasn’t had any guest stay overnight for 29 years, and counting. Incidentally if you feel like doing a two day tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone then you can. You get to spend the night in a hotel inside the CEZ. It even has a bar.
It’s rare for me to include a photo on here that isn’t mine, but on my day tour we didn’t stay in or visit the Hotel Pripyat in Chernobyl which is the only functional hotel inside the CEZ. Yes, you can stay here and the radiation risk is effectively no different than if you spend the night in Kiev or Kharkiv. With reference to https://chernobyl-tour.com/overnight_in_the_chernobyl_hotel_en.html for the photo below.
4.Indoor Football Court
The Soviet Union won the European Championships once and reached numerous World Cup Semi Finals. There’s a completely destroyed and non-intact football court inside the council building at the main square. It’s an eye-sore for sure.
There was a smashed up caser nestled in behind the nets so I lined it up and scored a goal. I hit the net in Pripyat. No cause for celebration. But I did remember how the Soviet heroic goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev (former world number one keeper) once came up against Glentoran’s Canadian centre half Terry Moore who scored and my team Glentoran drew 1-1 with Spartak Moscow. The irony? It was just two years after the Chernobyl disaster.
Trees have grown over where the grass once was, but apart from that this has all the remnants of what a Soviet Park actually is (was). Pripyat Park is similar to parks I backpacked through in Belarus, Transnistria and even Kyrgyzstan. It’s sad of course and apart from some ground moss, there’s no bright green colour here. Fallen leaves, barren trees and emptiness all around.
“Under neon loneliness, motorcycle emptiness” – Manic Street Preachers
6.Pripyat Amusement Park
A sadly infamous Ferris Wheel has lasted the test of time. It hasn’t collapsed yet but no kids have been on the full circle for a hat-trick of decades. And nearby some dodgems remain, the way they were in 1986. This is no time to be amused in an amusement park.
They haven’t even removed those 1986 Soviet Propaganda Pillars from the Park in the downtown area either. Gorbachev was in control when the Chernobyl disaster occurred.
It’s all rather grim. No rear end brown coloured solution Mr. Holmes. But yeah, this shit lives on.
Of course the revolutionary leader Lenin is still remembered and three statues inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remain. Lenin Square is nobody’s dream here any more. Trees without leaves sway in a wind that can no longer be bothered. Lock away your smiles, preferably in a year before 1986.
Those 8 sights were all in downtown Pripyat. We get back in the car, the air still decidedly rough and choky. We drive for a tour of two more spooky buildings now, in a more residential area. Your eyes won’t forget what they’ve seen in central Pripyat.
9.Swimming Pool Azure
Bring yer togs and let’s go skinny dipping in the Soviet Union? No chance, although oddly the swimming pool and leisure centre here in Pripyat were still in use up until 1997, a bit ridiculous really given that the radiation risk has lingered in this city since 1986.
But yeah it’s the craziest swimming pool I’ve ever been to. Diving boards still on display, trashed changing rooms and smashed up windows all around.
10.Middle School Number 3
The Middle School that we visited is the most toured one of the city’s remaining schools, apparently we should call it Middle School Number 3, though I believe there must have been an actual name for it. And though we toured a Kindergarten while backpacking through Grim Kopachi, this place hits deeper into your heart and gullet.
It’s truly horrific. Misha, our guide used to attend this school. It’s creepy. One room is full of gas masks. I feel something odd in my mind as I see this room. Gas masks everywhere, like on some kind of display.
You see, under the rule of the Soviet Union every child had to have a gas mask at school. I thought of my time growing up in Northern Ireland and we had bombs going off and sectarian shootings all the time, but we had no need to have gas masks in school. The USSR lived and breathed military ideals. Gas masks even look scary. Put them on the floor of a dusty, dirty, damn, abandoned building in a city that nobody has lived in for thirty years and it’s even more scary.
As we backpack through the school, water drips, floorboards creep and Misha tells us this is the scariest place in the world at night. He’s bound to be right. A day time dander through the school gives me the creeps as it is. It feels like this building will collapse of its own accord within the next decade. When I suggest this to Misha, he agrees. Some buildings in Pripyat have already failed the test of time and crumbled.
When we walked out of the Middle School Number 3, it was time to get back in the car and drive out of the city of Pripyat. This has been a truly sad and moving adventure and as I looked back using the wing mirror in the car, I knew I wouldn’t be back here.
We drove through the red forest and would have our lunch appointment next. Dining out in Chernobyl: Top 1 restaurant.
Here are some interesting videos that my tour guide Misha sent me, truly grim memories of backpacking in Pripyat. This is perhaps the saddest travel blog post I have ever written.
Postcards from Pripyat:
Here are my own personal videos from the tour of Pripyat. The videos are good but the audios are not clear, apologies for that, it was a fault on my part and nothing to do with being in the CEZ: