Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Chernobyl 3: The Trip

Pripyat, 2018

But what was it like? I've written about Kiev and the explosion, but what was the trip to Chernobyl actually like? You're not supposed to go inside the buildings - they're starting to collapse - but the tour operators generally ignore this rule. I imagine that the fines are tiny and no-one really wants the steady flow of tourist money to dry up. My hunch is that if someone was to die on a tour the authorities would make a show of cracking down, and at least temporarily the tour guides would be out of work.

As a consequence the tour operators aren't keen on people associating their names with interior shots of buildings, so I won't name the tour company I used.

Part of the Duga complex; one of the buildings had a little model of the location.

Step one involves getting to Kyiv. I've already talked about that. London Gatwick, Ukraine International Airlines, pack a flaregun in your luggage in case you need to distract Russian missiles - I learned that trick from Airport '80: The Concorde - then Kiev Boryspil airport, bus to Kyiv, navigate the Kiev Metro, get some food, prices are very low, weather good in October, not much to see in Kyiv but the same is true of Slough or Basingstoke and the entire country of Luxembourg so I have nothing against Kiev.

Step two involves finding the tour bus. A long line of them depart from a spot to the right of the main station, beyond a McDonalds. The tours provide basic food but there's a lot of walking about, although none of it is strenuous. When I went, the outside temperature was 21c. I felt a complete fool for bringing along a big coat, except that the interior of the buildings was freezing cold, because they're open to the elements and haven't been heated since 1986, so at least indoors I was cozy.

Also, I wore proper hiking boots. Because the floor is covered in broken masonry and glass. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is one of the few environments where dressing like an Airsoft enthusiast or a trenchcoat-wearing goth actually makes sense and can be pulled off successfully. You might even get away with a Chinese-style surgical facemask but you'll look like a wally if you wear a full-face gasmask.

For large chunks of the trip I lived inside a Mercedes van. Have you ever been in a van? Vans are awesome. Every trip in a van is an adventure. The exclusion zone is bordered by a series of checkpoints. The one I passed through had a souvenir stall, which was playing some tunes from Fallout 3 - "the roads are the dustiest, the winds are the gustiest" - and I was sorely tempted to point out that they had the wrong fictional universe because the Fallout games are set in a post-nuclear United States. but I kept my trap shut.

You're not supposed to photograph the soldiers at the checkpoint, so I didn't.

Chernobyl in fiction? Glad you asked. One of the strangest aspects of the Chernobyl disaster is that the definitive cinematic depiction of the event was released in 1979, seven years before it happened. In theory this violates causality, but if you think about the entire span of universal time from the Big Bang to the infinite darkness of its eventual heat death, seven years is smaller than a quantum fluctuation, so in that respect causality doesn't matter.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is one of dozens of films I have downloaded from torrent sites over the years and never got around to watching, although it is by all accounts terrific.

So the story goes, this river was so polluted from the chemical plant in the background that several of the cast and crew developed given life-threatening illnesses - lead actor Anatoly Solonitsyn and director Andrei Tarkovsky both died of cancer within a few years, Solonitsyn in 1982 and Tarkovsky in 1986.

In the book she's called Monkey. You can't get away with that nowadays.

Stalker was shot in Estonia. It's one of those arty European films where nothing happens but the interior decor is fantastic and all the women are thin and beautiful. It's very loosely based on Roadside Picnic, a Russian science fiction novella written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in the early 1970s.

I've read Roadside Picnic. I actually bothered to read it. I finished reading it on the plane to Kyiv. It's a short book, and as with a lot of old-fashioned sci-fi it's more an exploration of a setting than a proper story, but I enjoyed it. The characters communicate by shouting at each other and smoking, so I mentally imagined the whole thing as an episode of The Sweeney but in Eastern Europe.

The writers had a hard time with Soviet-era censorship, which explains why the main character spends so long moaning about capitalism. All of the characters have nicknames; the businessman who funds the hero's lifestyle is called Vulture. At heart Roadside Picnic is a Western, one of those Westerns where the Wild West is being tamed by the railroad, although in this case the wild west is a set of mysterious zones filled with alien artefacts that people are prepared to risk life and limb to retrieve and the trains are automatic drones that can navigate the hazards.

Our hero is a man, a wily man on the edge of the law somewhat akin to Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat. In chapter one he is in the process of going straight, but something goes wrong; he finds himself unable to readjust to his former life of crime and eventually embarks on a desperate mission to give his life meaning.

Roadside Picnic doesn't take long to read. The plot could be condensed into one of those 1970s television plays. There's an odd stylistic device whereby the first chapter is first-person, the second is third-person, the next chapter is first-person but with a different lead character, etc, which I assumed was leading to something but apparently not. It's not quite a classic but it has stayed with me, and the fictional universe it depicts is fascinating.

In the mid-2000s the book was mined for inspiration by Kiev-based developers GSC Game World for their STALKER games, which is where I come in, because my interest in Chernobyl comes from those games.

I wore proper boots, shown here encrusted with two whole days of invisible death.

STALKER, the game, is set in a parallel world similar to our own; a second Chernobyl disaster, even worse than the first, has altered the laws of physics in a zone surrounding the reactor, and your job is to reach the power plant and find your destiny. There were three STALKER games, the horror shoot-em-up STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), the half-assed capture-the-flag asset-mining prequel STALKER: Clear Sky (2008), and the much-better-but-relatively-bland STALKER: Call of Pripyat (2009). The first has a terrific doom-laden atmosphere, the last is conventional action game with mild role playing and sandbox adventure elements but lacks the first game’s nightmarish qualities. If you can only afford two of them, buy the first and last.

The STALKER games were ambitious but full of bugs, with occasionally ropey dialogue and an unpolished feel, but the bits that worked were extremely effective. The day-night cycle, the artificially intelligent bands of roving mutants that made every location feel alive, the oppressive atmosphere, the rough but evocative graphics, etc. Development was protracted and in the end the team had to cut out a lot of content to get the game finished, but modders have added in some of the cut elements - sadly there isn't enough content to turn Shadow of Chernobyl into a true open-ended sandbox game, but with mods it becomes a fascinating free-form adventure RPG, simpler than Fallout but with more atmosphere. Unlike Fallout the STALKER;games are deadly serious; Fallout is basically a spoof that tonally feels like a throwback to the 1990s, when for a brief time it was hip to laugh at the 1950s. I'm not going to write any more about Fallout.

The STALKER games sold well and, along with Half-Life 2 and Good-Bye Lenin, channelled a post-Soviet, Eastern European aesthetic that was very fashionable in the mid-2000s. If I had done a media studies degree in the mid-2000s I would have been sorely tempted to use STALKER as an example of post-Soviet angst. Life in a capitalist society is like a forced labour camp; inside the camp people are compelled to work until they die for unseen masters, but outside there is only a thousand miles of permafrost and wolves. Imagine escaping, and walking in a straight line, endlessly, only to finally encounter the same camp but from the other side, etc.

Taken from STALKER: Lost Alpha, a mod that gives the game a visual polish but turns the storyline into a meandering mess.

STALKER is loosely modelled on real-life locations in the exclusion zone. Being based in Kyiv meant that the developers could actually visit the zone, as detailed in one of their work-in-progress reports. Nonetheless they took artistic liberties with the geography. Although individual buildings are accurate, the scale is generally larger than real life (the real Chernobyl power plant is smaller than the version in STALKER) and the geography of the area is fictional.

In the game Pripyat is south of the Chernobyl power plant whereas in reality it's to the West, and the streets of Pripyat aren't connected in the same way. Furthermore the real-life town of Pripyat doesn't have Monolith snipers or electro anomalies, and not once was I attacked by a helicopter gunship. STALKER is an acronym by the way. It stands for Scavengers, Thieves, something beginning with A, Looters? Killers? Whatever. Technically it's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but I'm not typing that.

My group visited Pripyat in the morning. If you're willing to pay, and willing to visit in the dead of winter, or willing to visit under the radar, you could visit at night; this particular building is often photographed at night because it looks attractive when illuminated from within.

The tour operators have a mixture of one-day, two-day, and multi-day tours. One day isn't enough unless you're just ticking a box or the trip is free; more than two days is too much unless you're shooting a photo-book, which as mentioned in the first post in this series is a hard sell in 2018 because Chernobyl and Pripyat are mined-out. It has been filmed with drones, photographed at night, in infrared, timelapse, gigapans, HDR, you name it. I am possibly the first person to shoot Pripyat with an Olympus Pen F but who cares?

On day one my group visited the area around Chernobyl, the outside of the reactor, plus the Duga radar complex and its surroundings. The radar complex includes a complete small housing / agricultural complex which if anything is more atmospheric than Pripyat on account of the military detritus, and looking through my photographs I'm starting to forget which ones were shot in Pripyat and which were shot at the Duga complex. For lunch we popped off to the workers' cafe, where I sat down and photographed my meal:

At the end of day one we went to one of the few hotels in the area, although it's more of a hostel. Chernobyl town is dark at night because most of it is deserted and there's a curfew from 20:00 onwards. The buildings are mostly in good shape so it looks like a town that has been freshly-deserted. The stray dogs were happy to see us. None of them tried to bite off my face. None of them split open and fired tentacles at me a la The Thing.

The hotel has nothing. There's nothing to do except sit outside and read. The hotel doesn't have single rooms, so I had to share with a Ukranian man who was also on the tour. I know from the internet that European men kiss each other in a non-sexual way so I was prepared for that kind of thing but for whatever reason he never offered to kiss me. Am I really that unattractive? There were separate beds. And wifi.

Was the wifi strong enough for Pornhub? I didn't find out; what if the authorities were monitoring my activity? Given the fact that 90% of the population of Chernobyl are male security guards and plant operators, and that there's literally no nightlife, I imagine that the majority of Chernobyl's internet traffic is Pornhub. Oddly AR15.com seemed to be blocked in Ukraine; given the current situation you'd think they would want more guns, not fewer guns.

Day two majored on Pripyat, followed by lunch, then Chernobyl's unfinished Reactor Five:

Photography tip: I took a pair of Olympus Pen F film cameras. They're half-frame so I didn't have to change rolls very often. They are manual-everything, so the only electricity I needed was for my lightmeter, which doesn't use much. I was curious to see if the latent radiation would have any effect on the film (as expected, it didn't; presumably it would have been a general fogging rather than dramatic lighting bolts).

However most of the interior photographs were taken with my mobile phone. There simply isn't enough light for available-light photography with film. It doesn't matter how hard you push the film, or how fast the lenses, or how steady your hands; film just isn't fast enough, and it's not practical to use a tripod, because you're not supposed to rest anything on the ground.

If you're dead set on using film my suggestion is that you bring a flash, and either practice flash metering beforehand, or cheat and use a 1990s film SLR with automatic flash metering. A Canon EOS 3 with a 550EX would be perfect. Alternatively buy a second-hand Nikon D3s and run the photos through a film simulation filter. I won't tell. No-one need ever know.

Day two ended with another trip to the Duga complex. There was a suggestion of meeting some of the people who live in the zone, but the thought of smiling awkwardly at a bunch of Ukranian pensioners who are probably thoroughly sick of people treating them like circus animals didn't appeal to anyone in the group so we skipped that. STALKER: Call of Pripyat has a section that takes place in an abandoned tape factory, which is to the north of the exclusion zone, but as before I kept my mouth shut because I didn't want anybody to think that I was a nerd so my once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore an abandoned Soviet-era tape factory evaporated.

Why once-in-a-lifetime? The exclusion zone is starting to succumb to the elements, but beyond that Ukraine is slowly being swallowed up by Russia. We aren't going to start a Third World War to defend Ukraine's independence. It'll be an awkward few years before people can visit Chernobyl again, and it won't feel right.

At the conclusion of day two we drove back to Kiev, through the same checkpoint. We all queued up for hot dogs from a roadside stand. Ukranian hot dogs are awesome. They aren't like British hot dogs, they're French-style. Instead of cutting a slice into the bun they drill a hole through the middle, then squirt mustard and ketchup into the hole, then in goes the sausage. If you grew up on a farm or spent time around horses it's not a million miles removed from the thing whereby daddy horse really loves mummy horse a lot.

After returning to my hotel in Kyiv I photographed my boots, took off my boots, had a shower, and wondered what to do next. Should I wash my boots, or leave them dirty so that they look cool?

As with Venice, Chernobyl is one of those ne plus ultra things that is at the top of its field. What next? Unlike most blogs that have survived for more than a handful of posts I am entirely self-funded; I'm not married to a wealthy executive at Google or a major bank etc, so I can't sponge off them; I don't have looks or age on my side. As I drifted to sleep I was once again struck by the melancholy of a battle won.