hey ho, on the devil’s mount


"Sorry, your listening post is on another hill."

“Sorry, your listening post is on another hill.”

In Grunewald, overlooking much of west Berlin, stands a steep green hill called Teufelsberg. This means “devil’s mount”, and while the ominous associations lift for a moment on learning the name was after the nearby Teufelssee (“devil’s lake”), they return full force on learning that the hill is not natural, but artificial, built from the ruins of a dead Berlin. Between round-the-clock aerial bombing from the RAF and USAAF, and the Red Army taking the city a street at a time with rifle, hand-grenade and 203mm siege howitzer, Berlin was more rubble than city in 1945; and when the Cold War began in earnest, the blockaded West Berlin had no way of shipping its remains beyond city limits. Thus: a giant hill made of piled-up destroyed buildings, with an indestructible Nazi training college underneath it, and an odd observatory-looking NATO listening post on top.

I hadn’t even intended to go to Teufelsberg, but the Technikmuseum and the Gatow airbase were both closed on Mondays for whatever weird Berlin reason, so Plan C it was. Navigating was more difficult than it should have been; Google Maps’ listed paths are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike reality. Realising this and adopting the traditional hill-climbing method of “up”, I accidentally stormed up the smaller Drachenberg instead, and after spending a while catching my breath on the windy open plateau there, had to come halfway down again in the blazing sun. Still, it was a lovely walk; trees have been planted on Teufelsberg, the leafmould and wild grass have covered the detritus of the war. It feels like any other wooded hill, but where the path wears away to the bones of the land beneath, it’s not rock that is exposed, but brick, concrete and rebar.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either's good.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either’s good.


Ascending the much more heavily wooded Teufelsberg, for real this time, I couldn’t work out what the actual status of the listening post was. A website offering tours said it had shut down and I couldn’t find its successor; Wikipedia gave a very muddy and uninspiring account; and coming to a fence at the top, whose many, many repairs showed evidence of a constant, vicious running battle between fence-maintainers and people with wire cutters, made me no more optimistic. But persevering along the path I found a gate, where several extremely scruffy-looking people with beanbags and a small child asked me for money. As it turned out, the complex has been overrun with hippie-ish squatters who charge entrance based on no authority whatsoever. They said €7, €5 for students (and had a clipboard to make it seem all legit). I said I was a student and showed them my young person’s railcard. They were in no real position to argue.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

The squatters have padlocked most of the buildings up (the fucking hypocrites), but what remains is an intriguing post-Cold-War sprawl of lovingly-if-messily maintained gardens, recycling stations and hoards of furniture arranged with Germanic pedanticism, all in the shadows of huge dead NSA structures sprayed with really quite impressive murals in all sorts of lurid colours and degrees of fatuous countercultural nonsense. I don’t know the engineering behind the listening station, and all the significant kit is long gone, but what remains is a series of tall buildings capped with puffball globes made of fibreglass hexagons. The highest and largest building has two lesser globes on the roof of a squat office building, and a single greater one between them, on a tiered column lined with shredded tarpaulins.

Above: Domes. Below: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Upper left: Domes. Lower left: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Said main building is easily accessible and is basically a graffiti gallery; all very run down, but not stinking of piss, which is a mercy. The roof has been lined with a fence made of wooden forklift pallets, there are separate bins for different recyclables and you just know they empty them every day; very German squatters. There’s no electricity, though, and health & safety is generally thoroughly Ukrainian; to get to the highest point, inside the top dome, you need to climb about fifteen flights of stairs in pitch blackness (thank heaven for the LED function on modern smartphones. The dome itself has almost no views, just a port in it, but the echoes are incredible, and I spent a good fifteen minutes up there whacking pieces of detritus into each other and stamping my feet to see how it would sound.

Leaving, I discovered the fridge of drinks by the clipboard hippies was on an “honour system”, so I donated a euro for a rainbow-labelled COLA-MIX in order to a) rehydrate b) maintain my self-destructive habit of buying oddly named sweet drinks in foreign parts. It wasn’t that bad, in truth. Going downhill was even more of an odyssey than coming up, as I once again put my trust in Google Maps and was once again betrayed. Trying desperately to follow my phone’s directions along paths which weren’t there, I ended up on mountain bike tracks which testified to the daring, not to say total suicidal lunacy, of local mountain bike riders, and ended up at the right place by luck as much as judgment. Overall, I had the time of my life, but it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have anyone else with me; between the steep hills, mild peril and totally improvised navigation, I suspect most companions would have got quite annoyed with it all. But I’ve always found that the best way to have an adventure is to point yourself in the vague direction of something interesting and follow your nose.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016



“…some radiant joy will gaily flash past.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.

The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.

The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.

We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

among the wars and the waters

A BRIEF INTERLUDE ON THE HISTORY OF TALLINN from which, at a glance, the most impressive thing about the place is that it’s independent at all. The Estonian state in its modern incarnation has existed for less than 45 years, in two non-consecutive periods, and already has two independence days, both celebrating getting away from Russia (the first in February, celebrating the 1918 independence; the second, in August, celebrating the 1991 independence, in a “for real this time” sort of way.)

Tallinn has been around for a long time, as raiders’ outpost, Hanseatic trading port, fortified naval base, and eventually capital of its own country. But it is mainly a history of being batted about, invaded and occupied by the dominant regional power of the time, and there have been a lot of those in the Baltic. The extensive and wonderful medieval city walls surrounding the Old Town, the enormous trace italienne fortifications surrounding them, the monstrous coastal ex-fortress (“Patarei” means “battery”) and the fancy seaplane hangars are all parts of the Baltic power game.

Estonians are related ethnically and linguistically to Finns (and thus, going a very long way back, to Hungarians) – the ancient Estonians existed as one of the many seafaring, sometimes-trading sometimes-piratical groups operating in the Baltic through the Dark Ages, which we English inelegantly give the catch-all name “Vikings”. They were one of the last pagan groups in the Baltic, principally because neither the Catholics on one side nor the Orthodox on the other wanted to set off a holy war with the other, and fought variously with Danes, Swedes and the Republic of Novgorod (the northern proto-Russian state which was later subsumed into the Grand Duchy of Moscow) as well as ignoring and, er, possibly eating various luckless Catholic missionaries from the German states. They built hill forts and stone castles, including the basis for the later Toompea Castle on the Tallinn citadel. In the 13th century the Christianised Danes, sick of Estonian raiders, allied with the Teutonic Order to launch a Northern Crusade into the area, slaughtering the loosely confederated pagan tribes, wrecking their hill forts and eventually (in the face of some violent revolts) establishing a state called Livonia, run by a Christian knightly order called the Livonian Order, or Sword Brethren.

A variety of horrible wars – Sweden, Denmark, Muscovy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth being the main players – swept over Livonia for the next three centuries, but Tallinn itself mostly did fine. Known as Reval at the time, it had become part of the Hanseatic League, an immensely influential semi-formal association of merchant towns, which ran most trade in northern Europe from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. Serving as a natural point for trade between Muscovy and everywhere else, Reval was coining it, and this period was when the town hall and the main late-medieval fortifications, including Fat Margaret and the Kiek in de Kök, were built – both protecting the city’s wealth, and displaying how rich they were to be able to afford this sort of martial bling. Fancy walls and Hansa status weren’t an invincible defence, however, and with the rest of Estonia Tallinn mostly-voluntarily came under the power of Sweden in 1561. The Swedes, then an up-and-coming power who cemented their Baltic pre-eminence in the apocalyptic Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, considered Reval an excellent base to bottle up the Russians, and invested a staggering amount of money into defensive upgrades – the enormous bastions, redoubts and ravelins that surround the medieval walls to this day.

Sweden’s Baltic dominance and ownership of Tallinn lasted until the Great Northern War (1700-1721), when Peter the Great of Russia kicked the shit out of the Swedes and took all of Estonia as war booty. (True to form, Britain involved itself on the weaker side for postwar concessions, switched sides halfway through and generally enjoyed watching everyone get wrecked.) The improved fortifications were never tested – the horrific plague outbreak that ravaged the Baltic during that war reached Tallinn in 1710, just before a Russian army did, and after losing two thirds of their population to the plague the survivors collectively went “sod this, not worth it” and opened the door to Ivan.

Tallinn was part of the Russian Empire for the next two centuries, and went through the same general developmental upheaval as the rest of Europe, but retained its prosperous trade, its medieval old town and its German mercantile-urban elite, the last only leaving in the 1890s. British and French ships blockaded it during the Crimean War, but didn’t attack. In the run-up to the Great War, it was a key component of the enormous Russian effort to block off St Petersburg from the sea with coastal fortresses in Estonia and Finland, and Royal Navy submarine squadrons used the port for raids on iron ore convoys from Sweden to Germany; and, during the utter chaos of the Russian civil war, the Eestis took advantage of everything falling apart to declare an independent state, with its own democratic government and adorable little excuse for a military.

Russia invaded again in the 40s, twice: the first time, in the aftermath of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they annexed the Baltic states, abducted the existing governments, military, police etc and deported them to Siberia in cattle cars to die, set up puppet governments claiming to be “popular fronts” and legitimised them through rigged elections, shot anyone who resisted, and generally made such a horror of themselves that when the Nazis attacked in ’41 they were welcomed as liberators. The Nazis, of course, did their usual thing with Jews (not that there were many in Estonia by that point) then, as the Eastern Front moved so decisively westward in 1944, the Soviets returned, kicked the Nazis out and killed or deported everyone who had cooperated with them and anyone else they found slightly threatening. They again installed a puppet government as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, then carried on doing their general repression thing until the mid 50s, breaking resistance through mass deportations, conscripting the young men for forced labour, sending dissenters and people with money to the gulag etc – all of which was partially reversed with the Khrushchev thaw. Then, when the USSR collapsed, Eesti got independence again in 1991, and threw in with the EU and NATO as quickly and enthusiastically as it could; you spend Euros in the shops now, and there are semi-permanent NATO deployments there. I didn’t get any impression of tension while there – Tallinn has a huge Russian-speaking minority, most tourists there are Russian, and if anything we got treated better having a Russian friend than we did just speaking English – but the country is clearly on Putin’s shopping list, and sabres are being rattled on both sides of the border.

Tallinn 2015

Old Town and Toompea Linnahall, Patarei Prison, Seaplane Museum – A Brief Interlude on the History of Tallinn – St Olaf’s, Fat Margaret, Old Hansa

tall olaf and fat margaret


St Olaf’s is a curious building to look at. In style, it’s just a fairly simple church, with a plain sloped roof over the nave and a square tower supporting a sharply pointed spire, all in that boxy, whitewashed Baltic style. But in scale it is enormous. Getting to the top, through an amazing assortment of different rickety wooden steps and winding stone spirals that hide in those white walls, was an adventure in itself.


The viewing gallery is at the base of the staggeringly tall spire, whose steep sides are a patchwork pattern of old green and new brown copper, narrowing to a sharp point aimed straight up at heaven.* Health and safety measures are refreshingly Eastern European, and only a waist-high metal fence and a narrow wooden pathway stop you sliding down that hot, curved copper to oblivion on the cobbles. From the tower, you can see all Tallinn: the red roofs and white walls of the Old Town, bounded by marching lines of medieval watchtowers; the glass and concrete of the newer city, shining in the hot white light; the huge, clear shapes of the coastal giants; the tarmac expanse of the port complex, as it embraced a pair of Baltic cruise liners; a smudge on the far coast we fancied was Finland, under the cobalt-glass sky. A party of game old Japanese ladies passed us as we came back down the vast tangle of stairs, and we privately wished them luck.

Back when cartography was FUN.

Back when cartography was FUN.

Next was Fat Margaret, a short stroll through shady cobbled alleys later. She is, as you might expect from her name, a stout old thing, stony-faced and round-bottomed, with a neat stone arch linking her to her little sister, and three decks of gunports running through her two-metre-thick walls to cover the harbour. Plaques on the street outside said nice things about the British and the Royal Navy.  An excellent video display on her first floor showed the history of Margaret, who was once known as the “Rosencrantz Tower”. The Meremuuseum inside is run by the same group as the seaplane hangar, and the big-ticket items have been moved there, leaving behind a lovely, intimate history of Estonian sailors, traders and ice-fishermen, full of model ships, spyglasses, two-headed eagles, a century and a half of black-and-white photos and a millennium of mad old maps. On the roof, a number of picnic tables sat under parasols, and a lady manning the little bar there provided us with milkshake floats and supporting evidence for Russian stereotypes about Eesti slowness.**

Early 19th century map of the various Russian batteries and minefields securing the Gulf of Finland.

Map of early 20th century Russian defences securing the Gulf of Finland. Yellow stands for high-density minefields, orange for low-density minefields. The greatest concentration of gun batteries, to the left, is between Helsinki and Tallinn.

Outside the walls, on the west side of town, were lawns, flowerbeds and curious public art installations: giant ants, weird abstract shapes, curious mirrors. Someone had set up an “Olympics of Creepers”, an assortment of climbing plants from around the world, each with their own bamboo cane to “race” along.*** (Eesti slowness jokes at the end, please.) Getting a little footsore, we strolled back through the new(er) town, certain landmarks now familiar – the weird, cool, shining gold apartment block with the luxury shops in its cut-back lower levels, the amazing, oppressive brick Art Deco oddity, the scrappy car park which always seemed to have some new kind of vermin in it – to Liivalia and a bolognaise dinner.

The Creeper Olympics. No, not the internet kind, the plant kind.

The Creeper Olympics. No, not the internet kind, the plant kind.

But Misha doesn’t seem to need sleep, and after filling up we went back out again to the Old Town, locating “Catherine’s Passage” and investigating the tat shop hiding in a cellar there; and to Old Hansa, dark and full of guttering candles, for honey beer in big earthenware tankards. At another tat shop, I bought a tiny Estonia lapel pin and a fridge magnet made of Baltic pine and amber. The streets were deserted late in the evening (“after dark” would be inaccurate; white nights, remember) and we found ourselves back up on the Toompea, looking down on the city as it glittered with a hundred thousand points of light. I watched one enormous red dome-shaped building on the eastern horizon, could swear that it actually seemed be getting bigger – but it was only after a few minutes that I realised it was the moon, full and red and enormous.




* It is believed the spire has been struck by lightning at least ten times. It’s rude to point.
** A Russian joke:
An Estonian waits at a railway station. Another Estonian passes by, pumping a hand-car. The first one asks: “Iiis iit faaaaarrrrr tooo Talllinnn?” “Notttt verrryyyy faaaarrrr,” the other answers. The first gets onto the car, and helps work the pump. After two hours of silent pumping, the first Estonian asks again: “Nooowwww iis iit faaaaarrrrr tooo Talllinnn?” “Noooowww iiitt iiiis verrrryyyyy faaaaarrrrr.”
*** The American plant was a clear winner with the Japanese one fairly close behind. The British creeper was pathetic and hadn’t even started.


Tallinn 2015

Old Town and Toompea Linnahall, Patarei Prison, Seaplane MuseumA Brief Interlude on the History of Tallinn – St Olaf’s, Fat Margaret, Old Hansa

lost to the zone

(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)

This was made not from shaped panes set edge-to-edge, like our, but thousands of flat strips sandwiched together; I've never seen anything else like it.

This was made not from shaped panes set edge-to-edge, but thousands of flat strips sandwiched together; I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Down by the water, a little café (which was so familiar from CoP gunfights I expected Monolith goons to appear in the windows. What? It’s a great game) had an array of weird, wonderful stained glass windows. Whole sections of them had come down, lying smashed on the floor, and the kitchen was a burnt-out disaster area. Our guide told us about taking the Top Gear crew around for an episode filmed here: the final cut made it look like an escapade of devil-may-care banter, but offscreen they’d come with a motorcade of NBC-sealed caravans and a BBC health & safety man with a clipboard, and spent every second off-camera wearing breath masks they burned each night. A few irradiated wrecks sit in the shallows, and in asking after them we finally found out why the huge cranes we’d seen before were serving a lake: the entire inlet had once been part of the River Pripyat, but had been blocked off to avoid contaminating the river (which feeds into the Dniepr, and thus flows directly through Kiev.) Heading back up to the cafe, H.R. suddenly started shrieking in my jacket pocket. I remembered a story Nikolai had told us about a visitor who suddenly became so strongly radioactive that he went off the scale of the first three Geiger counters they used, and they had to bring in several more powerful counters just to isolate where on the increasingly upset man the problem was. It turned out to be a tiny fleck of graphite which had stuck to his boot. I was glad when I got past the hotspot and H.R. calmed down a bit.

Our friend, the atom.

Our friend, the atom.

Visiting one of the schools was a wonderful experience; a huge heap of children’s gas masks in the main hall distracted everyone who was only interested in getting the most ~poignant~ photo, leaving the rest of it free and full of interesting relics: textbooks full of poetry and puzzles, posters of Russian poets and maps of the Socialist Republics educating the children of Pripyat on topics that were once geography, politics and science but are all now merely history. Given free rein for an hour, Tom, Bill, Matt and I aimed for an interesting Art Deco-looking factory adjacent to the school and almost immediately got lost in the slightly radioactive undergrowth. We found it in the end, and got a thrill of genuine exploration, with no sign anyone had been there in a very long time: undisturbed little fried-egg stalagmites, an unbroken fluorescent tube that imploded like a rifle shot under someone’s boot and made us all jump, corridors so dark we needed phone lights to proceed. Exploring it felt a lot like videogame pathing, with passages blocked by fallen air ducts forcing us round more interesting routes, but we finally found the Thirties-style glazed section on the roof. Once we were done taking pictures with the wrecked neon signs that crowded the rooftop, the route back down was a very easy staircase of dusty luxcrete and leprous peeled paint.

A history of MAIL.

A history of MAIL.

The rest of the day passed far too quickly: the dry, graffiti-slathered swimming pool, where the peeling surfaces and missing ladder of the diving board didn’t dissuade damnfool Englishmen from climbing to the top; plastic circles from lane barriers were heaped up in the rotting changing rooms. The post office, with beautiful murals inside and out: an abstract wind goddess realised in ceramics on the exterior, and inside a painting of The Post through the ages, from Egyptian scribes right up to CCCP cosmonauts, who looked out across a mail room full of broken glass, empty phonebooths and telegram forms. The prison, hardly used in affluent, law-abiding Pripyat, but with big serious cells and hefty reinforced doors just in case. The fire station – tower, sadly, inaccessible – and motor pool, full of vehicles and engines that had been wrecked to stop looters, some dumped up on the roof with cranes that had themselves been smashed up. The overgrown athletics track, with its bleachers now thoroughly bleached and rotting, and a rickety floodlight structure I quickly gave up on climbing. It was another beautiful day, the vegetation bright and green, puffy white clouds against a clear blue sky, and it was a genuine shame to leave.


Back in the town of Chernobyl itself, a display of the robots and other machines used in the cleanup sit behind a fence and an array of radiation warning signs: part museum, part memorial. Nearby stands an actual memorial to the firefighters and cleanup workers, in a chunky, emotive style; Bill noted our guide, who had been completely cheerful and nonchalant throughout the tour, was actually visibly moved by this part (which didn’t stop half the group from striking poses in front of it). Another monument, glimpsed only from the bus, consists of a pair of origami cranes sat on stone plinths, and a spray of metal pipes that might be bamboo, might be control rods; a gift from the Japanese, who have their own relationship with the atom.


In the centre of town is a terrible angel made of black-painted rebar, blowing its trumpet above a long row of black and white signs. The signs are mostly adorned with flowers; the names are in Cyrillic, and look for a moment like the names of the dead, but there’s a concrete map of the whole Zone next to them, strewn with metal markers, and you realise that the signs are road signs; the monuments are not to people, but lost villages, dead and buried in the poisoned earth.


Kiev & Chernobyl 2015
Kiev monasteries & Mother Motherland – Maidan, St. Michael’s & St Andrew’s– Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantPalace of Culture 
Duga array & Pripyat Hospital – City of Pripyat & Chernobyl monuments

the steel woodpecker

(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)

Breakfast at the hotel consisted of eggs, good black tea, and pancakes with cottage cheese and sultanas. The bus took us down a narrow concrete-block road through the woods, and we glimpsed a stag that stood in the open for a while before leaping off into the undergrowth. Radioactive contamination and weird rot patterns aside, the Zone is now one of the best nature reserves in Europe.

“Are you a bad enough dude to destroy capitalism?

South of Pripyat, Duga stands in the forest like a god’s comb.

“In Soviet Union time, this place was marked as a non-operational summer camp for children.” Gates with big silver stars and buildings painted with heroic murals of lantern-jawed Ivans wrecking fascisti jarred slightly with the description, although it’s plausible a summer camp for children would have those too. The Duga base camp went on for a while, full of trees, dead offices and heavy machinery, until we came suddenly to the heel of the array itself.

Part of Duga.

Part of Duga.

Even by the standards of the Soviet Union, which are different to everyone else’s – even by the standards of the Soviet military, which are another order of stupidly huge – the Duga array is astonishingly big. It’s not associated directly with the ChNPP, although a quiet backwoods location with a massive local power supply surely figured into its placement. It was the receiver for one of the most powerful radar systems ever built, bouncing signals off the ionosphere to pick up the signatures of ballistic missiles launching from the continental USA. Intruding on civilian frequencies (although they denied it), for years it made a random knocking sound on civvie radio which people came to call the “Woodpecker”.* A selection of photos which better get across the scale can be found here; the transmitter station itself is miles away, outside the Zone.


Although it looks like one big grid,** Duga is best understood structurally as a long line of metal towers, about 160m high, mutually supporting and linked by the huge array of antennae and reflectors (most obviously, the club-shaped dipoles you could cage an elephant inside) they carry. On each tower, two-storey ladders link slim metal platforms; eleven ladders, twenty-two platforms, the gap between each platform about four times the height of a man. In England, if we’d ever dared to dream this big, health and safety types would wet themselves at even being in the same postcode as Duga, let alone wandering the sandy scrubland around its base, and certainly let alone attempting to climb it. But Ukrainians, it has been observed, really don’t give a shit about health and safety.

Each ladder is a crudely made rack of thin rebar steps about fifteen metres high; the steps are very far away from each other, so climbing involves serious stretching and hauling, and the welding was never much good even before forty years of rust and fierce winds. By the top of the first ladder, I was considerably more out of breath than I’d expected. At the top of the second, which is above the treeline and so has both clear views of the ChNPP and a very brisk wind, my fingers were getting raw and numb and I’d whacked my shins far too many times on the absurdly spaced ladder bars. I alone of the group made it to the top of the third ladder, by which time my fingers wanted to fall off and my arms were trying to leap out of their sockets; the cold wind was howling around me and I was getting a real (if nerves-exacerbated) sense of how wobbly a forty-year-old structure which was never really meant to be climbed in the first place could feel. There were eight more increasingly rickety, increasingly exposed ladders to go. While I consider my extremely underdeveloped sense of self-preservation a “spirit of adventure”, I conceded that this wouldn’t be the day, and started to descend – which was, if anything, much scarier. We walked the length of the array and came back along an absurdly long support building at its base, exploring what was probably the seventies equivalent of a server room and marvelling at the huge blocks of cooling apparatus and (proportionally) even huger circuit boards piled up hither and thither.

“This is Radio Yerevan; we were asked: Is it true that American skyscrapers are the tallest in the world? We answer: Yes, it's true, but Soviet transistors are the largest in the world.”

This is Radio Yerevan; we were asked: Is it true that American skyscrapers are the tallest in the world? We answer: Yes, it’s true, but Soviet transistors are the largest in the world.”

Back through the woods, to the Pripyat hospital, which is about as eerie as you’d expect an abandoned hospital to be: rusted bed frames, pictures of Lenin, abandoned sheets and surgical equipment, hypodermics and autoclaves, supply cupboards full of test tubes and little bottles and ampoules of coloured liquids marked in Cyrillic; a huge, sprawling, peeling building. In the lobby of the hospital, a single fireman’s glove rests on a table. I read an account from Grigori Khmel, one of the Chernobyl firefighters who were first on the scene. As he tells it, they had no training or equipment for nuclear material, no real knowledge of what they were dealing with, and he described curious men picking up bits of graphite control rod blown out of the reactor core. Some of them went up to the roof, and left bodies so radioactive they had to be buried in sealed metal coffins; some stayed on the ground, and a few of them are even still alive.*** Most of their clothes and equipment are in a basement room in the hospital we were straight up told not to look for, but that one glove, thirty years on, made H.R.’s indicator jump from the .23μSv of normal Zone background radiation to 5, to 50, to 144.

Eye drops, I assume.

Eye drops, I assume.

* A recording purporting to be of the noise can be found here. It sounds more like a helicopter than a woodpecker to me.
** Well, two big grids; there’s also a lesser array, about 90m high, which uses shorter wavelengths (and thus has better resolution.) But next to the really big one, who cares?
*** Only two people actually died on the night of the disaster; around thirty others, almost all firefighters and reactor workers, died in hospital over the next few months from burns or acute radiation sickness. Four were killed when a Mi-8 dropping materials onto the reactor clipped a cable and crashed. Hundreds of other workers, and tens of thousands of liquidators, received severe radiation doses during the cleanup operations; the effect this has actually had is strongly disputed.

Kiev & Chernobyl 2015
Kiev monasteries & Mother Motherland – Maidan, St. Michael’s & St Andrew’s– Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantPalace of Culture –
Duga array & Pripyat Hospital
– City of Pripyat & Chernobyl monuments

idi ka mnie

(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)

Reactor IV, under the sarcophagus.

Reactor IV, under the sarcophagus.

Up at the Kiev Ibis, packratting supplies and truffle tea from the all-you-can-eat buffet and piling onto the bus, almost getting killed by a man who felt reversing a 4×4 in a tight space was a great accompaniment to having a heated argument on his mobile. Ukraine, health and safety, etc. We were issued our little yellow Geiger counters (I immediately christened mine H.R.). It was a rainy morning, huge blocks of flats with great big multicoloured socialist-surrealist murals silhouetted against the aluminium-grey sky; most of the vegetation was overgrown, but nothing was particularly run down. The roads were broad but busy, and the drains were having trouble, with cars struggling through flooded areas or driving over verges to get around them. We forded an underpass which had easily eight inches of water gathered at the bottom.

“Good thing it wasn’t any deeper, I don’t think we’d have gone through!” “I thought Ukrainians didn’t give a shit about health and safety?” “Well… I didn’t say the driver wouldn’t try.”

“Good thing it wasn’t any deeper, I don’t think we’d have gone through!”
“I thought Ukrainians didn’t give a shit about health and safety?”
“Well… I didn’t say the driver wouldn’t try.”

A broad, well-made road out of Kiev – “it’s one of the best in the country, because it goes to Yanukovich’s old house”. Lots of villages, each with the same war memorial starring the same glum greatcoated soldier with a Mosin-Nagant on his shoulder, and curious signs above the shops – a girl tooth and a boy tooth holding hands. Thin iron grave markers with intricately wrought ornamentation in the churchyards. A very flat, very green landscape, with bigger individual fields than anywhere I’ve seen since Australia. Good tank country. Finally, we came to the 30km perimeter at the edge of the Zone of Alienation: a big well-manned checkpoint, where uniformed militsiya checked our passports and those of passengers from a couple of much larger coaches. There was already a curious stillness in the air.

Chernobyl. Note the insulated above-ground pipe.

Chernobyl. Note the insulated above-ground pipe.

The town of Chernobyl (not to be confused with the city of Pripyat, built in the 1970s for reactor workers), is ancient, dating to at least the 12th century. Nowadays it’s mostly abandoned, but parts live on to accommodate temporary cleanup workers (who obey very strict exposure rules). It’s an odd place: almost all the buildings are in ruins, with a handful – especially the fire station – in really good nick. All the plumbing is above-ground to avoid anything leaching in, and pairs of insulated pipes line every road and arch over every junction. Past the town, and down another long, straight road, a second checkpoint marked the 10km exclusion zone; a posse of military types with a huge vehicle-scanning Geiger counter, an AK-74 sitting on a table. We saw the roofs of wooden cottages sticking up from the earth; our guide told us how the contaminated soil had been dug up across the entire zone and used to bury the irradiated villages, creating a few extremely hot spots. H.R. chirruped as they went by.

Reactor V.

Reactor V. Look for the black fire escape on the lower right to get a sense of scale.

The approach towards the NPP is breathtaking, as a vast complex of decayed or unfinished mega-architecture comes into view. Across an artificial cooling canal, perfectly straight and easily fifty metres wide between its concrete levees, stand two incomplete cooling towers built in the ribbed, truncated-cone Soviet style, one nearly finished, one just a stub.** Then the enormous incomplete Reactor V complex, a mix of rusty red and pale concrete; it’s possible, if you like, to read it as the carcass of some immense animal, being scavenged by the skeletal cranes that surround it (as if the carcass of a nuclear power plant wasn’t hellishly impressive enough). And finally, the main ChNPP, a monolithic concrete monster which fills the horizon, almost a kilometre of blocky grey with red-and-white-striped stacks at each end. The silver arch of the New Safe Confinement shone beyond the far end.

The main ChNPP; the silver structure on the left is the New Containment Structure.

The main ChNPP; the silver structure on the left is the New Safe Confinement.

Seen up close, the main power plant offices could be anywhere in Ukraine (or even in England); just a car park and a busy Seventies office building, with people coming and going. We were security-checked by earnest, attentive Ukrainians, and taken to a changing room. Safety procedures were serious: lab coats and hats, shoe covers, a little shiny metal dosimeter like a dog-tag. Then it was across a skywalk, and into the plant itself. An immensely long corridor, lined with ribbed golden panelling, runs almost the entire length of the power plant, dotted everywhere with old-fashioned instruments and doors to other rooms, many of both still in use. It was only partially lit, and there were occasional drips from the ceiling; plant workers in the same coat-and-cap outfits as us came and went.



Banks upon banks of dead consoles lined the gloomy Reactor II control room, a couple of men in white working at a well-lit table against one wall. One of them obligingly explained what the displays actually meant: the huge round-edged grid, a recurring theme in the displays, turned out to be a sort of top-down map of the whole atomic pile, with a dial or button corresponding to each rod (colour coded for the type of rod) displaying the height, or temperature, or serving to lift or raise them. The console showing the power control for the turbines was similarly lucid; he explained the layout of the control room when the plant was working, with a couple of consoles to each controller. Now, he monitors things to help with the decommissioning of the rest of the plant, which he said would take until at least 2064.

System for raising and lowering control rods.

System for raising and lowering control rods.

Next, we were shown through an unlit pump hall the size of a cathedral, with rails on the floor leading away under heavy metal doors, and the immense yellow cylinders of the pump structures looming in the dark; we climbed sharp ladders and a precarious metal balcony, using phone lights to see. I lost all sense of direction as the tour wound through room after room, switching from dark and gloomy to daylit and shabby and back again. The floors were overlaid with thick translucent plastic sheeting, the walls whitewashed, the heavier bits of equipment – cranes, motors, pumps – hpainted bright primary colours. In the crook of one corridor was a monument to a reactor worker whose body was never found, with blue and yellow plastic flowers; the wall behind it separated us from Reactor IV, and set all our Geiger counters singing. Along the walls of another room, reactor schematics and horribly ironic health and safety posters were pinned up. Someone had scrawled “Putin is a cock” in Ukrainian on one of the signs. H.R. periodically went crazy as we walked through pockets of radiation.



In another building, separate from the plant, a fantastically made model opened up to show the design of the entire ruined Reactor IV assembly. A plant guide named Stanislaw explained the gigantic New Safe Confinement being built just outside: the sarcophagus (basically, an improvised structure of lead and concrete covering the entire reactor pile with its molten core and uranium fuel rods) is falling apart, and rather than attempt to fill in the cracks and shore up the half-collapsed, incredibly radioactive plant building, they decided to build the huge new containment structure nearby, slide it on rails over the whole Reactor IV unit, and seal it, preventing the escape of any more radioactive material. “As to the fuel rods, we will not speak of this. We have a hundred-year guarantee with the NSC. Hopefully the scientists will figure it out.”

The foot of the NSC.

The foot of the NSC.

The NSC is a hollow semicircular prism which weighs thirty thousand tonnes and cost a billion and a half euros. You can look up the dimensions, if “it’s big enough to hide a nuclear power plant in” will not suffice. It was still a way from completion when we visited: the corrugated silver outer skin was essentially complete, the inner skin nearly so, but the various climate-control and monitoring units were mostly yet to be fitted, as were the internal cranes to help remove debris and continue the cleanup of Reactor 4. Despite the apocalyptic surroundings, the construction site, complete with portakabins and shiny new mobile cranes, feels a lot like any other modern building site. We stood at the truss bridge that carries a railway across the cooling canal and threw bread to the giant black catfish writhing in the dark green water – “we feed them Russian tourists, that’s how they get so big” – then trooped back to the minibus, past a statue of Prometheus, and drove back along the cooling canal.

Cooling tower interior.

Cooling tower interior. It was far too big to get the whole thing in frame.

We went inside one of the abandoned cooling towers. It was ridiculous, simply too big to be real; hawks were circling inside the tower, far above the unfinished cooling mechanism that was itself like a whole abandoned multi-storey building site. There was a ring of scaffolding at the inside lip of the tower, and an entire segment had come down and lay in pieces on the half-flooded floor of the tower. Rusty old bolts were strewn everywhere, and I couldn’t resist acting out the Stalker’s safety test.

There is a fish farm/maritime research station where the cooling canal reaches the lake, using the warm water for studies that would otherwise be difficult in northern Ukraine; the building, which was abandoned quite a while after the disaster, had some authentic-looking charts up but was mostly full of stupid tacky shit clearly deliberately planted to mock gullible tourists – a child’s gas mask, a creepy operating light. Much more interesting was the metal nursery pontoon, now half sunk in the lake, and some enormous fish corpses, curiously well-preserved and not as stinky as you’d expect.

I don't know what this is, but it was HUGE.

I’m not really sure what this is, but it was HUGE.

We drove back past the NPP, past huge mobile-containment-unit-looking things on overgrown rails and a vast forest of pylons, transformers and other substation chicanery. The road turned to the northwest; low pine trees crowded behind radiation trefoil signs, and every Geiger counter in the bus started warbling excitedly at once. “This is the only road in Ukraine where it’s recommended you speed,” our guide observed drily.  This was once the Wormwood Forest, which took the very worst of the contamination after the accident: the radiation killed the trees, killed the microbes that should have broken them down, and left a tract of discoloured corpses that gave the place its new name, the Red Forest. During the cleanup, liquidators bulldozed the forest, cut up the trees and buried them under tonnes of sand before planting new pines there; many of the new trees displayed weird gigantism or grew up stunted and bushlike. Contaminants have leached into the groundwater, poisoning it, and decades later the leaves there still rot more slowly than they should. But without the signs and the Geiger counters, there would be no way to tell; the trees now are green and alive, not visibly deformed, and the name is an artefact of history. I wonder if it will always be the Red Forest. Memory decays, too; slower than leaves, but faster than corium.

Soon we were out of the woods, and reached the big white concrete sign that welcomes travellers to the ghost town of Pripyat.

** The ChNPP originally had four reactors, cooled with water from the nearby Pripyat River that then flowed into a huge artificial cooling pond. The planned expansion to six reactors would exceed the pond’s capacity, requiring cooling towers to be built. At the time of the disaster, the Reactor V complex and its turbine assembly was half built, as were the towers.

Kiev & Chernobyl 2015
Kiev monasteries & Mother Motherland – Maidan, St. Michael’s & St Andrew’s – Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantPalace of Culture –
Duga array & Pripyat Hospital – City of Pripyat & Chernobyl monuments