Chernobyl: Two Days in the Exclusion Zone

IN UKRAINIAN: A great star, blazing like a
torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many
people died from the waters that had become bitter. Revelation 8:10-11 Everyone knows something about Chernobyl. Any disaster with such worldwide implications
tends to leave a mark in history, but Chernobyl is different. It has struck a chord with us somehow, and
has become the subject of, and inspiration for, countless pieces of media and art. Video games are no exception. In some ways, games allow us to feel a connection
with a place the strongest. As players we explore and get lost in fantasy
worlds. One of those worlds exists. What would being in such a place be like? Are the depictions in media true to life? What could visiting a familiar setting show
me that I hadn’t already seen? What would I learn? First I had to get there. Chernobyl is still under military control,
so anyone wishing to visit has to jump through some hoops. Thankfully there are many tour agencies willing
to arrange everything for you. I used a company called, fittingly, Chernobyl
Tour that I met up with on the outskirts of Kiev. Once we got in the van we were handed a map
and a geiger counter. This was happening. The most important person today in this bus is, of course, our driver. His name is Vladimir. And my name is Natalya, I’ll be your guide. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone itself is divided
into two parts. 10km zone, the small circle, that is the closest
area to the nuclear power plant and the most contaminated. And 30km zone, that bigger circle, that’s
kind of a buffer between the contaminated area and normal Ukraine, clean area. Relatively clean. Natalya then explained the reason for all
the checkpoints we would encounter. Because there is no tourism in the zone. The area is still quite radioactive, some
parts of the zone are quite radioactive. And our visit is more like educational visit,
so you are not going to be tourists, you’re going to be something between journalists
and scientists. Alright we’re here at checkpoint one. I can’t actually film anything around here
because there are soldiers and stuff. And since my camera was off during checkpoints,
I subsequently missed a lot of video gold from Natalya who would say things like “welcome
to the exclusion zone, gentlemen.” She did have a lot of helpful tips, however. Those particles that are still present in
different parts of the Exclusion Zone are safe for us if they are outside, but if they
get into our bodies, then that might cause problems. So to avoid us getting them digested or inhaled
it’s better to eat and drink our snacks and water in the bus. Loud and clear. Our first stop was a village called Zalissa. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least
a little bit jittery. Our first encounter with the exclusion zone,
up close and personal. The first building we entered was a small
medical clinic. You can tell from the footage that I’m tentative. I was scared to touch anything for fear of
radioactive dust, and stepped cautiously in case the decaying wood gave way. DREW: Is it safe to keep walking this way? NATALYA: Yeah but be careful. Not safe. It’s not safe, but be careful. Nothing is safe in the Exclusion Zone. This was a key moment. I simply had to recalibrate my safety threshold. This wasn’t a museum and I wasn’t in America,
which would have had required hard hats and had all kinds of roped off areas. Instead, most of the buildings we entered
were the safety equivalent of an open construction site. Nails poked out from wooden beams and we often
had to dodge gaping holes in the floor. It was freeing, in a way, not to be constrained
from exploring, but it reminded me that this place isn’t going to be around forever. Which is a shame, because, in its own way,
Chernobyl is beautiful. It’s also totally unlike any other place
I had ever been on Earth. In terms of things I’d experienced, the
closest associations I could make were to virtual worlds. Physically, I’d never been in an apocalyptic
wasteland or wandered an abandoned city of 50,000 people. I’ve never had to check the ambient radiation
level in real life. Gas masks aren’t a normal part of my everyday
experience. But in games, we see that stuff all the time. By the way, The Last of Us absolutely nailed
it. The game may not be set in Chernobyl, but
the post-apocalyptic details were spot-on. The washed-out tone of everything, the way
debris accumulates in corners, the encroachment of nature right up to the outside walls, and
sometimes within them. Even the wallpaper looks the part. It was a weird confluence to experience those
things in real life. It sounds strange, but, like seeing a prehistoric
skeleton in a museum, I often had to remind myself that what I was seeing was real. The apocalyptic effect was magnified the more
identifiable our surroundings became. It was in these places especially that I found
myself snapping back to reality. When we entered an apartment complex, I couldn’t
put my finger on why it felt so strange until I realized: it’s odd to be walking through
a large building and feel a breeze. But the most striking thing I felt was the
sense of trespassing. Despite these ruins being over thirty years
old, there are still a lot of reminders that people actually lived here. It’s not some amusement park recreation,
children’s homework lays around on the floor, kitchen appliances sit against walls, somebody
actually lived in apartment 70. If you’ve ever been in someone else’s
home while they’re not there, you’ll have a sense of what this felt like. NATALYA: And the newspaper was issued, gentlemen,
on 4th of March, 1986. “Interview with Muammar Gaddafi, former leader
of Libya.” And when that reality hits you, you can’t
help but wonder: IS an apocalyptic outcome so fantastical? I’m standing in the middle of one! At no time was that more apparent than when
our geiger counters would freak out, like when we visited a summer camp located on the
shore of the cooling pond. To stop the beeping, Natalya simply increased
the counter’s threshold from 1.0 to 3.0 microsieverts. DREW: Thank you. NATALYA: You’re welcome. If we heard the alarm again, we’d be in
a real hot spot. The fear of the radiation was like a constant
hum in the back of our minds. Thankfully we had Natalya to tell us where
it was safe to go. That said, I’m really glad we had our own
geiger counters. You can’t see or feel the radiation, so
without a device telling you “yes, this area is safe,” you’d be afraid to take
a step anywhere. Like if you were to, say, get so wrapped up
in getting good footage that you become separated from your group…in the middle of Chernobyl,
miles from help, surrounded by invisible pockets of radiation. NATALYA: Were you looking for us? DREW: Yeah, sorry! It was a long first day of our two-day excursion,
and I needed a break. By the time evening rolled around, I was eager
for a meal and some sleep. Our hotel was located within the exclusion
zone in the town of Chernobyl. NATALYA: Drew, you can stay here, you’ll be
alone. DREW: Alright. NATALYA: Gentlemen, at seven, we go downstairs. We joined a few other groups in the hotel
dining room for some surprisingly good food. My fellow group mates, two quiet German geocachers,
invited me for a drink at the hotel bar afterward, but all I wanted was a shower and some sleep. As you might be able to tell, I just took
a shower, which is kind of the most fun part, I think, about being in a hotel in Chernobyl
is that everything that you do, you do in Chernobyl. So, I just took a shower in Chernobyl. Just tying my shoes, in Chernobyl. Connecting to wifi, in Chernobyl. Also Chernobyl has wifi. Charging all my devices, in Chernobyl. Playing Final Fantasy VI… in Chernobyl. But all kidding aside, this has been an awesome
first half of the trip already. We’ve seen so many things. I actually burned through 80% my batteries. There’s not a lot going on in the town of
Chernobyl at night because there’s a curfew starting at 9pm. NATALYA: Not to stay outside because if they
close the gates then it will be a problem for you to get in. They actually serve beer in the bar downstairs
of the hotel, but I am about to pass out just from all the physical exertion today, and
I want to be fresh tomorrow. So I’m going to transfer some footage and
then get some sleep. Good night! I slept for ten hours. Breakfast the next morning was a delicious
pastry, some eggs, and OHMYGODCOFFEE. Before we left, though, there was one more
thing I had to investigate. The TV gets 11 channels. In Chernobyl. NATALYA: So gentlemen, welcome back on board. On Day 2 we hit the big stuff. And by “big,” I mean… big. The DUGA is a radar station, aimed directly at
the United States, meant to detect incoming missiles. It is unfathomably large. Interference from the station was audible
as clicks on radio sets around the world, so much so that it earned itself a nickname, the Russian Woodpecker. Nobody knew where or what it was, however. The secret village surrounding it, called
Chernobyl-2, appeared on maps as a disused summer camp. Children from the school in Chernobyl-2 officially
graduated from the school Pripyat, since their school wasn’t supposed to exist. Pripyat did exist. But getting there required one of the more
harrowing experiences of the trip. Take your geigers out, gentlemen, because
probably in three or five minutes we’re going to cross with you very interesting place called
Western Radioactive Trail. The way of the of the first radioactive cloud
that was carried by the western wind. GEIGER CLICKING GEIGER ALARMS SOUNDING Follow me please at all times. It’s very easy to get lost here. Standing in the middle of a town that used
to hold 50,000 people is eerie, but mostly it’s just sad. Pripyat especially displays hallmarks of a
city on the rise. The crown jewel of the Soviet Union’s nuclear
energy program, it was entirely self-sufficient and by all reports a great place to live. It was a new city, only sixteen years old
at the time of the accident. The average age was just 26. A town looking to the future, now locked in
the past. If you know one landmark in Pripyat, chances
are it’s this one. DREW: Really feel like I should be wearing
a ghillie suit for this. The ferris wheel, like the rest of the small
amusement park, was scheduled to open a few days after the disaster happened. In a way it’s a metaphor for Pripyat: a
hopeful construction, destined never to see its full potential. Finally it was time to see ground zero. NATALYA: And to the left we have Chernobyl
Nuclear Power Plant. The New Safe Confinement arch, a structure
built next to and then moved over the entire reactor building, had loomed on the horizon
throughout our trip. Now it was time to see it up close. Really close, as it turns out. Radiation levels here were remarkably low
for how close we were to the reactor. A testament to how good a job the cleanup
crews did and are still doing. What did you have right now? DREW: 1.0. NATALYA: One? One microsievert? So before November 12th, levels were four
microsieverts per hour here. DREW: Before November 12th of last year? NATALYA: Yeah, before they covered the ruins
with that new construction. DREW: Wow. Sure, it would probably have been cooler to
see the busted-up sarcophagus that’s now covered by the arch, but this way we got to
see the world’s largest moving object, the whole assembly nudged into place just a few
months ago. The area around the arch is so clean that
we were able to have lunch just a few hundred yards away in the power plant’s canteen,
where workers who are still working on cleanup come to eat during the day. Again, fantastic food. Also that juice tasted exactly like Gushers
for some reason. On our way out, we stopped by another staggeringly
large structure, an under-construction cooling tower. Like the ferris wheel, supermarket, and many
other parts of Pripyat, the tower had not yet been completed when the accident happened. DREW: It all feels a little like Jurassic
Park. Where it was built but it wasn’t quite ready
yet, and then a disaster happened. NATALYA: Yeah. Or a post-apocalyptic world. Especially those where there’s some things
left, like the kindergarten. Yeah, those are the only things left, unfortunately. The size of this thing was just one more in
the list of incomprehensible sights we had seen throughout our two days in the exclusion
zone. But it wouldn’t be the last. At some points during our trip, I felt like the Exclusion Zone was still alive. At no time was this stronger than in the town
of Chernobyl on May 9th, Victory Day. This is the one day per year the government
allows former citizens of Chernobyl and their families to return. I have no idea what this must have been like
for them, but if I can get a sense of how lovely a place it was, it must be really hard
for them to see it in such a state. Near the town center is a set of memorials,
the most affecting being a row of signs from each evacuated village. In some cases, the signs were all that was
left after cleanup crews literally dismantled and buried entire villages due to high levels
of radioactivity. The last thing we saw exiting the zone underscored
the future of the place. We were on our way out of the zone when Vladimir
suddenly pulled over stopped the van. NATALYA: Ah! Do you see them, guys? There! DREW: Where did these horses come from? NATALYA: Originally they are from Mongolia. DREW: Why were they brought here? NATALYA: For experiment. Scientists wanted to check how they will get
used to this environment, to the forestry area because Mongolia is steppes land. And also they wanted to check how they will
accommodate to the existing conditions of higher levels of radiation. But as you can see, everything turned out
to be not that bad. Today we have one of the biggest herds in
the world of these horses, Przewalski horses. DREW: And likely to stay that way. The authorities didn’t want us contaminating
the rest of Ukraine, so at each checkpoint we passed through these incredible-looking
radiation detectors and waited a disconcertingly long time for the “clean” light to illuminate. Clean! No rads here! NATALYA: You managed not to pick up even a
particle on you. Great job. So let’s find out doses of radiation that
you’ve accumulated during these two days. Thank you. So Drew, what do you have there? You have there eight microsieverts. DREW: Is that good? NATALYA: Eh, not bad. I have even more. I have ten microsieverts, so you’re pretty
fine. Ten microsieverts—really not a lot—you
would accumulate during two or three hours of flight on board of plane. Because, usually, level of radiation on board
of plane depends on the height of that plane, and it varies between three microsieverts
and six microsieverts. Ten microsieverts you could also accumulate
during probably three and a half days in Kiev. Or if you eat 150 bananas at a time. But bananas have a natural radionuclide, potassium-40,
and it’s better have potassium than cesium that we were accumulating with you today. You will not glow in the dark, gentlemen,
nothing will grow on you. So you shouldn’t worry about that. So eat bananas, and everything will be okay. DREW: Glad to hear it. Leaving was bittersweet, for sure. After only two days, I had kind of grown attached
to the place. But before I had even arrived in Chernobyl,
I wondered: is it right for people, tourists to come here, to a place of such tragedy? I asked Natalya for the Ukrainian perspective
on the people who choose to come here. NATALYA: Usually these are young people, because
they are fascinated with the game they were playing, computer game. A lot of sites from the Exclusion Zone were
used in that game so they are coming just to take a look at those sites. But also to learn more about the disaster,
to see these places where everything was happening. As part of Ukraine, as an interesting place
to invite people to. And also, at the same time, to invite them
to Ukraine, for them to learn more about this country, about the traditions, about the situation
here, about everything. I couldn’t agree more. If we want to learn about the world, the reason,
the impetus, doesn’t matter, even if it’s as seemingly insignificant as “I saw it
in a video game.” What matters is that we make the effort, and remain open to what the
world has to show us. I thought I would find a devastated, depressing
town, a ripe target for cynicism about the human race. Instead, I found a beautiful, poignant reminder
of life’s fragility and perseverance, not to mention an impressive demonstration of
international cooperation and preservation. Everyone will see something different, but
what matters is that we go and look. Cloth Map is supported entirely by viewers
like you on Patreon. If you’d like access to behind the scenes
notes and documents, extended cuts, exclusive Q&As, or would just like to support the project,
head over to

15 thoughts on “Chernobyl: Two Days in the Exclusion Zone

  1. this is…amazing.
    I can't say how good is this video, but in the same time, and scary. I can't say…that was so sad…i mean, in 1986, 26 April…the disaster was so scary and to visit Cernobyl ….I don't know what to say, but one more word, AMAZING.

  2. Yeah if they didn't show any Stalker Shadow of Chernobyl footage it would of been a disgrace! Lol I mean that's where the game is SET

  3. There's something about abandoned places that fascinated me.. Especially this one, where they put all the hopes for the bright future and then abruptly all ended by faith..

    Nice vid, very informative.. 😎
    Thank your for sharing this..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *