Ruined Wastelands & Wasted in Ruins: Chernobyl & Budapest

Ruined Wastelands & Wasted in Ruins: Chernobyl & Budapest

April 26, 1986. The time is 1:23 AM. There’s been a horrible accident in Soviet Ukraine; The worst nuclear disaster of all time is about to radically alter the course of history forever. More than 100,000 people are evacuated from the 30km perimeter surrounding the burning reactor – including the beautiful towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl – as deadly radiation contaminates the air, water, and soil.

Thousands of lives will be lost or drastically altered, and these once vibrant towns will be left abandoned, frozen forever as they were that April, rotting under the heavy weight of the sands of time. Still to this day they teem with dangerous radioactivity, a disaster zone closely guarded by the Ukrainian National Guard. Looming in the background is the steel encased sarcophagus of the Chernobyl power plant, deadly radioactive waste still melting beneath its core even today, a sobering reminder of the consequences of nuclear power in human hands.

It may sound like the premise of a modern dystopian drama, but this unnerving Soviet ghost town is very real indeed. I’m not sure which part of the potent behavioral cocktail first managed to intoxicate me: the morbid curiosity, the adventurous ambition, or the Instagram street cred (ha!) – but it didn’t take long to decide that I needed to travel to Ukraine to see the fallout zone for myself. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, so I opted to explore the exclusion zone for 2 full days, staying overnight in the heart of Chernobyl.

My journey began in capital Kyiv (or Kiev to most in the West), which offered a sobering moment of its own. It’s difficult to put into words just how chilling it was for me to stand in the heart of Maidan Nezalezhnosti: Kyiv’s beautiful ‘Independence Square’. 

If you sat alongside me in the square without having caught up on recent Ukrainian history, you’d think it a rather charming, beautiful public space. You’d probably laze on a bench, soak in the warm summer sun, smile at the countless children playing with their families, vicariously enjoy a picnic lunch on the lawn, and admire the incredible architecture without so much as a second thought. But knowing what transpired on that very ground just a few years ago makes for an altogether different experience.

Had you stood here in the brutal harsh winter of 2014 – yes, just four years ago – you’d have witnessed a fierce and bloody fight for independence. You’d have been surrounded by the defiant voice of the Ukrainian people – over half a million of them – standing at first in peaceful protest against their corrupt President, who’d just double-crossed the European Union and pledged allegiance to Putin’s neighboring Russia despite promises to an optimistic public. And then you’d hear the tension come to a boil. Next, you’d hear the gunshots – first from police snipers, murdering demonstrators in the streets. Eventually, you’d hear the triumphant cries of revolution, thundering and roaring through the square and throughout all of Ukraine.

Standing amidst ground zero of this struggle for independence and justice that transpired so terribly recently was an incredibly visceral experience that genuinely gave me chills. Too often we read history books through the hazy looking glass of time, reducing events even mere decades old to the realm of lore and legend, convincing ourselves that these things transpired forever ago and allowing ourselves to forget, time and time again. This, though – this was practically yesterday.

When I stood in that square, I could feel the thunderous cries of the people echoing through the corridors. I could hear the gunshots ricochet around me, see the teargas billowing into the blue sky above, feel the brutal cold biting at my skin as the Ukrainian people ate, slept, and lived in this square for weeks to show they meant business. This was a grassroots revolution, born in the digital era of social media, spearheaded by my coeval Eastern European peers and fought with passion and conviction to the bitter end.

This was real, and it felt real to me in large part because of the incredible Netflix documentary Winter on Fire, which was shot on the ground, by the people, amidst the very streets I stood on during the furious weeks of revolution. This is real, honest filmmaking from ground-zero: high-def, handheld footage that leaves no ambiguity and puts you right in the middle of the action. I cannot recommend it enough.

But I didn’t travel to Ukraine to see Kyiv, and while closing my eyes and imagining the world burning around me amidst this beautiful, serene public square offered an incredibly valuable and raw experience, I still had another kind of adventure ahead – an adventure that would be jarring in a different way.

Chernobyl

As is mandated by the Ukrainian government, my two days in the exclusion zone would be as part of a small group lead by a knowledgeable local guide who was well-versed not only in the area and its history, but also in the important safety considerations necessary when exploring a radioactive fallout zone. We were equipped with geiger counters, a small device capable of detecting both gamma and beta radiation, and briefed considerably on the potential risks of prolonged exposure.

In short, access to the zone for short periods these days is quite safe, so long as you avoid particularly dangerous hotspots rife with extreme amounts of gamma radiation – the most penetrative kind. Make no mistake, though – the relative safety of the area today comes as a direct result of the concerted effort of thousands following the disaster. Which reminds me – let’s back up for a second to ensure you have the appropriate context here. 

Beautiful Destruction

The 1986 disaster was caused by a number of variables, but it’s fair to say the key contributing factors were a faulty reactor design and improperly trained personnel. Plant employees were attempting a poorly devised test in the early hours of that fateful day, which included the suspension of systems responsible for power regulation and emergency safety. When compounded with a few technical mistakes, the result was the production of immense amounts of steam and rapidly increasing temperatures: a combination that essentially turned out to be the perfect recipe for a dramatic explosion.

Alexander Yuvchenko, an engineer present at the time of the explosion, offered this chilling quote:

From where I stood I could see a huge beam of projected light flooding up into infinity from the reactor. It was like a laser light, caused by the ionisation of the air. It was light-bluish, and it was very beautiful. I watched it for several seconds. If I’d stood there for just a few minutes I would probably have died on the spot because of gamma rays and neutrons and everything else that was spewing out. But Tregub yanked me around the corner to get me out the way.

Like a raging wildfire or the ferocity of an erupting volcano, Yuvchenko is describing the eery beauty of catastrophic destruction.

As that beautiful desctruction bled into the early morning sky, it carried with it a deadly cocktail of radioactive material that spread all over Europe. In fact, these explosions released approximately 400 times the amount of radioactive fallout as the infamous bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. But the true dangers were just beginning: the reactor core, rife with radioactive material, was melting down beneath the rubble and destruction, posing a much greater risk as burning material melted away the foundation and inched towards an underground water source. If these two forces met, they’d trigger a supermassive steam explosion that by some estimates would have wiped out half of Europe, leaving it uninhabitable for 500,000 years.

Enter the ‘suicide squad’ of firefighters, miners, and military officials who worked tirelessly, knowingly exposed to deadly doses of radiation and unfathomably sky-high temperatures, as they frantically worked to control the situation and prevent the impending nuclear armageddon. Many of these men died, and thousands continue to suffer from the terrible lasting effects of radiation exposure.

At the time of the disaster, Soviet officials radically downplayed the severity of the situation, both domestically and abroad. The people of Pripyat and Chernobyl were evacuated far too late to avoid radioactive consequences, and when they were finally evacuated from their towns, they had mere hours to prepare a few scant belongings and leave on Soviet buses, essentially rendering their thriving communities as ghost towns – and it’s those ghost towns, eerily preserved in a sort of soviet time capsule and slowly rotting under the weight of time, that we’d be exploring.

Amongst the ghosts

While I had a decent idea of what I’d have a chance to glimpse in the ruins we’d be exploring, I’d failed to really wrap my head around the sheer scale of the disaster zone. These were two entire towns we’d be exploring – complete with schools, hospitals, community centers, homes, swimming pools, apartments, and every last hallmark of a functioning society, now abandoned and often desecrated by scavengers, junkies, and trespassers nicknamed ‘stalkers’.

For the most part, I think the photos speak for themselves, so I’ll just add a bit of color commentary. Here’s what I saw:

Above: boundary signs for both Chernobyl and Pripyat, and the remains of the infamous Reactor 4, now protected by a steel ‘sarcophagus’. Weighing 30,000 tons, this structure cost $1.6 Billion, is taller than the Statue of Liberty, and will remain a safe containment for at least 100 years. Fascinatingly, it’s the largest manmade object ever moved by humanity, a true marvel of engineering.

Above: Visits to both a kindergarten and grade school are particularly unsetting.

Above: The very local hospital in which the disaster’s first victims were treated. We’d later also visit the morgue where the deceased were prepared for their journey to the afterlife

Above: Exploring an area community center, complete with gym, swimming pool, and other recreational areas

Above: one of the most fascinating stops on our journey is an former secret soviet intelligence facility, disguised at the time as an electronics manufacturing business.

Above: Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the disaster is the ferris wheel at the Pripyat amusement park. Note: It was hot as hell, but long sleeves and pants are required in certain highly radioactive areas like this one

Above: The dramatic remains of a cooling tower, including a beautiful piece of art left by a visiting Australian. Also pictured is my rather quirky Ukrainian guide doing his best impersonation of the piece

Above: Various other areas we explored, including the remains of one of the very buses used to evacuate residents from the disaster zone

We were subject to constant checkpoints to have our radiation levels tested before we were able to proceed. If clothes were contaminated beyond reasonable levels, we’d have been asked to leave them behind. Luckily this wasn’t the case for any of us!

Above: A few of the cool folks I got to explore the area with! We hailed from Mexico, the UK, the US, and Ireland.

Exploring Chernobyl and Pripyat was one of those bucket list experiences for me, in large part due to the unique experience and unparalleled photographic value as a creepy abandoned wasteland. In that sense, it surely delivered – but I also learned a tremendous amount. More than anything, I took away an understanding of just how devastating the potential for nuclear power in human hands truly is. The nuclear weapons we possess today are capable of destruction MANY orders of magnitude more disastrous than what transpired here. Make no mistake about it: should true nuclear warfare ever break out, humanity is doomed to a future bleaker than these photos could ever hope to portray. That said, I’m optimistic that we’ll come to our collective senses and understand that no one should wield that kind of destructive power. I suppose time will tell.

Budapest: Let's Lighten the Mood a Little (Ok, a lot).

Whew! That was a heavy read, huh? Ukraine was a pretty sobering experience for me, so it seemed fitting that sobriety have no part of my next stop: Budapest, Hungary.

I didn't take this photo, but just look at how beautiful this city is!

Budapest is truly a world-class destination: Beautiful architecture, ornate grandeur, incredible rich history, world-class public transportation, a buzzy youthful energy, strong food culture, stunning bridges — the list goes on. That’s why I almost feel bad telling you that I, uh, didn’t really do anything here. Well, I didn’t do anything aside from meet a ton of awesome travelers, party into the wee hours of the morning, and sleep into the late afternoon. Every single day.

You see, aside from all of the other awesome things I just told you about Budapest, it also has a reputation for being one of the best party cities in all of Europe – and perhaps the world. Drinks are plentiful and incredibly cheap, the nightlife is legendary, and best of all, Budapest is famous for its ruin bars.

Innovative young Hungarians in recent decades have taken over crumbling, abandoned warehouses and other condemned spaces from the post-WWII era and transformed them into absolutely massive, palatial industrial party spaces. These bars are often absolutely labyrinthal, containing dozens of massive rooms with totally disparate, unique style and furnishings, connected by a maze of passageways that reward exploration and constantly surprise. They’re often grungy, gritty spaces that explode with color and art, and they’re absolutely packed every night of the week. In short, they’re some of the absolute coolest and most unique places I’ve ever let loose.

Here’s what my two favorites look like empty, which is novel for me since they were absolutely packed to the gills every time I went

If the presence of these amazing places alone didn’t bode poorly enough for my ‘productivity’ as a traveler (heh), it was tremendously compounded by the absolutely incredible hostel where I stayed. Hostel One has been named the best hostel chain in the world, and it’s pretty easy to see why. The staff here cooks a free family dinner every single night, which brings the whole hostel together to get to know one another.  Following the big communal meal, drinking games begin nightly at 9:30 – where you really get to know your fellow travelers.

My new Canadian friend Manny drinks a beer from his shoe. As one does.

At 11:30 sharp, when everyone is quite tipsy at the very least (and often well beyond that threshold), the staff rounds everyone up for a bar crawl, each night starting at a different incredible ruin bar. At that point, the hostel quiets down so that weary backpackers can catch some sleep – but most don’t bother and join in on the fun instead, staying out well into the early morning hours. At some point during each of my four days in Budapest, I declared that I wouldn’t be going out that evening, and would instead be a respectable human being and catch up on some sleep. That happened exactly zero times. Go figure.

Fortunately, Budapest did offer one famous attraction that helped me escape the cycle of party / (barely) sleep / repeat: it’s also famous for its many thermal baths, popular for visitors and locals alike. Budapest sits atop an incredibly rich series of thermal springs – in fact, this was a key factor in the initial settlement of the area. Influenced by both Roman and Turkish rule – two civilizations who prized bathing for both practical and recreational purposes – Hungary too began to see bathing as a key part of their cultural identity. As a result, public baths are ubiquitous throughout the city. 

Not only are they fun and unique – they also make for a great place to nurse a hangover. While there are many baths to choose from, I joined a few travel buddies in recovering from the night before at the Gellért Baths, renown for its opulence. This was just one of several swimming pools, hot tubs, wave pools, saunas, and baths on site that our full-day pass entitled us to.

So, that’s it! Literally all I did with four days in an incredible, world-class city. But you know what? I had one hell of a good time, and I met some absolutely awesome travel companions – here’s just a few of their beautiful faces; I regret that I didn’t capture more!

For all the culture and museums and sightseeing in the world, sometimes all you really need is a little bit of fun. So thanks for that, Budapest. For the sake of my liver, I’m glad we’ve spent some time apart… but I still miss ya.

That’s all, folks! I’m way behind on posts at the moment, but… sorry not sorry. I’ve been having way too much fun in Switzerland, Holland, Paris, and Italy to focus on writing – but I owe it to myself to play some catchup, so look for posts about those places soon!

Ciao for now!

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