National Geographic : 2014 Oct
Nuclear TOurism 135 who sneak into the zone. At first they came to scavenge, later for the thrill. They drink from the Pripyat River and swim in Pripyat bay, dar- ing the radiation and the guards to get them. A stalker I met later in Kiev said he’d been to Chernobyl a hundred times. “I imagined the zone to be a vast, burnt-out place—empty, hor- rible,” he told me. Instead he found forests and rivers, all this contaminated beauty. Our tour group walked along the edge of a bone-dry public swimming pool, its high dive and racing clock still intact, and across the rotting floor of a gymnasium. Building after building, all decomposing. We visited the ruins of the Palace of Culture, imagining it alive with music and laughter, and the small amusement park with its big yellow Ferris wheel. Walking up 16 flights of steps—more glass crunching underfoot—we reached the top of one of the highest apartment buildings. The metal hand- rails had been stripped away for salvage. Jim- mied doors opened onto gaping elevator shafts. I kept thinking how unlikely a tour like this would be in the United States. It was refreshing really. We were not even wearing hard hats. From the rooftop we looked out at what had once been grand, landscaped avenues and parks—all overgrown now. Pripyat, once hailed as a model Soviet city, a worker’s paradise, is slowly being reabsorbed by the earth. We spent the night in the town of Chernobyl. Eight centuries older than Pripyat, it now has the look of a Cold War military base, the cen- ter for the endless containment operation. My hotel room with its stark accommodations was like a set piece in a museum of life in Soviet times. One of the guides later told me that the vintage furnishings were salvaged from Pri- pyat. I wasn’t able to confirm that officially. The radiation levels in my room were no greater than what I’ve measured back home. In a postapocalyptic video game called “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl,” virtual visitors to the radioactive wonderland can iden- tify the hot spots by their blue-white glow. As you travel around the exclusion zone, the radia- tion counter for your avatar steadily increases. You can reduce your accumulation and avoid getting radiation sickness by drinking virtual Russian vodka. If only it were so easy. By the next morning we were becoming almost cavalier about the exposure risk. Standing beneath the remains of a cooling tower, our guide, hurrying us along, exclaimed, “Oh, over here is a high-radiation spot! Let’s go see!” as casually as if she were pointing us toward a new exhibit in a wax muse- um. She pulled up a board covering the hot spot, and we stooped down holding our meters—they were frantically beeping—in a friendly competi- tion to see who could detect the highest amount. My device read 112 microsieverts per hour—30 times as high as I had measured on the flight. We stayed for only a minute. The hottest spot we measured that day was on the blade of a rusting earthmover that had been used to plow under the radioactive topsoil: 186 microsieverts per hour—too high to linger but nothing compared with what those poor firemen and liquidators got. On the drive back to Kiev our guide tallied up our accumulated count—ten microsieverts during the entire weekend visit. I’d probably receive more than that on the flight back home. j All overgrown now, Pripyat, once hailed as a worker’s paradise, is slowly being reabsorbed by the earth.