The Zone of Alienation

A student working on a thesis concerning “disaster tourism” told us that the poisoned area downwind of the Chernobyl plant is known by different names in different branches of the Ukrainian government. His favorite is the “Zone of Alienation”.

Hopefully he is giving some thought to the boundaries of “disaster tourism” (a name he doesn’t like, nor “dark tourism”). It seems to me, as the converse of “it’s an ill wind that blows no good”, that almost any touristic place is the site of somebody’s disaster, from Marathon to Disneyland.

I have received more inquiries, “Why are you going to Chernobyl?” than nearly any other place I’ve been, or announced I was going to. People even in Kiev ask that. But then, they’ve already been there; or at least Chernobyl has come to them.

Why anybody wouldn’t want to go to Chernobyl? It’s the second most contaminated spot on the planet and the site of one of the most powerful metaphors of hubris to lie near a comfortable tourist infrastructure. You all know where you were when Reactor 4 exploded, or where you were when you would have found out if information had not been suppressed. It would be like going to Dallas and not visiting Dealey Plaza.

The abandoned city of Pripyat lies 7 kilometers downwind of the nuclear plant. It was evacuated forever two days after the reactor blew up — an unconscionably long time, whose story is told in documentaries and books. You can go there for $185 US, or some other price. That’s how much Sergei charged us.

The sight of a town full of ruined buildings is not intrinsically moving, if you’ve spent long in any rust belt. The whole Soviet Union is full of ruined buildings just like what you see here. When Communism fell, hundreds of thousands of factories went out of business overnight, whole cities were abandoned, cities that had been built by the Communists to achieve the absurd industrialist ideal of full employment for workers, but never made any sense by the unthoughtful capitalist economics that has succeeded it. So everywhere you go in Russia, or ex-Russia, you see concrete shells, with papers scattered on the floor, all the wires ripped from the walls to sell for scrap, trees growing out of the upper floors. I mean EVERYWHERE. It’s like the Foreclosed City of Modesto.

Don’t buy recycled metal from the Ukraine.

The forest has grown up so completely that you don’t really sense the size of it (population 50,000). You just wander around in old concrete buildings like the ones in Kyzyl or along the railroad, until the guide warns you that your 15 minutes are up and you have to get out of the radiation zone before you absorb too much. In Pripyat the radiation rate is 1-2 milliroentgens per hour, more on the ground where the mosses pick it up.

We went to an amusement park, a gymnasium, and a school, in addition to the “tourist center” outside the reactor wall where an ex-KGB scientist explains what happened and tells you where you can point your camera and where you can’t. The culture of nuclear secrecy never dies. He also showed a video which contained a subset of the information on the video that was shown on the bus on the way to the Zone of Alienation. The tourist center also has the COOLEST doll house you ever saw, a scale model of the concrete-enclosed plant that opens up to reveal the destroyed reactor inside.

You are allowed about 500 meters from the “Sarcophagus”. So many men died where we were standing, putting out the reactor fire. They saved Europe.

I wonder where their bodies are, and if they are incorruptible?

Lunch was served in Chernobyl. The town, just to the south of the plant, is not in the Zone. But the vegetables are imported, locavores suspend your belief for a meal. The fish in the cooling pond at Chernobyl are not eaten. They are huge, and tame.

More death:

The catacombs in Kiev are number one on my catacomb list as of now. We visited the Lavra Monastery. They have dozens of mummified monks, more innocently incorruptible of course, wearing the most elaborate embroidered burqas you ever saw, in glass top coffins, in a maze of twisty little passages underground. All light, by candles only. No photos obviously but a photo would duplicate nothing of the experience, unlike galleries and museums where photos capture most of what is felt and would interfere with the revenue stream. If you ever come to Kiev, allow yourself much more time than there is to see this and the other city marvels.

Also in Kiev:

The Great Gate of Kiev was never constructed. There’s a structure built in the 1990’s incorporating a few rocks from the original city wall that goes by that name, but it mostly is for drinking beer around in the late summer afternoon. The drinking age in Ukraine appears to be about the second trimester. I never saw such a collection of kids wandering the streets with open containers as on the Ukrainian National Day. I don’t have any idea what laws might apply, but the police would have to put down their drinks to issue a citation so the heck with it.

Don’t bother with the restaurant “Chasing Two Hares”. That’s the sort of place that gives Tourist Restaurants a bad name. Three bored musicians playing along with music-minus-three versions of: “Girl from Ipanema”, “Brazil”, “What a Wonderful World”, “Besame Mucho” hear anything Ukrainian yet? me either. There was a video loop of a movie with the name Chasing Two Hares which appeared to be something like The Music Man, and they were the sound track. The food took forever to arrive and it was tepid and the waiters were invisible. The main courses were good enough, but the side dishes may well have come from packages. And oh, there weren’t any Ukrainians there. The first tourist restaurant, O’Panas, had plenty of local people and it was fun.

One more restaurant recommendation: the Fornetto wagon at the town square. It always had a line. Dave left on a flight for New York via Warsaw and I bought train food there and around the square, on our last day in Kiev, as I was going overnight to Romania.

Fornetto is a franchise where you get a trailer with an oven and the company ships you little balls of stuffed dough to bake up on the spot and it’s great snacks in the under a dollar category. It wasn’t so great for train food, as the dough cools; and my salad from a convenience store leaked; so I ate everything early on the train ride to Suceava, and had nothing the rest of the ride. Not eating is an impossible decadence in Eastern Europe.