Photo report & interview: Khomatech about his visit to Pripyat (Chernobyl)

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One of the places that has been on my holiday-wish list since forever is Pripyat, a town in northern Ukraine which became abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It’s been hermetically sealed off for years, but since the radiation levels dropped it’s now possible to visit the town as a tourist. I recently came in touch with Dutch designer Khomatech, who visited Pripyat in 2013. I was curious to hear more about his adventures in this fascinating abandoned town (seriously: books, movies, music, games – you name it and you’ll find it) and asked him some questions on his trip to accompany his gorgeous photos. Enjoy!

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Bleaq: Hi Karol, thanks for sharing your photos and insights on your trip to Pripyat with us. Could you introduce yourself shortly?
K: I’d like to think I’m just an ordinary guy who loves ghost towns but I suppose many people would think there’s nothing ordinary about that.

Pripyat might not be the first location people think of when planning a holiday. How did you get the idea to visit the city?
K: I don’t recall exactly, I guess I’ve always been fascinated with all these places where society failed to take hold for whatever reason. It’s a rarity in the modern era so I feel I owe it to myself to visit as many of these places as I can. Chernobyl has always been in the spotlight for me due to its insane scale and the repercussions it’s had on the entire world. Naturally something in that vein is going to evoke more emotion than the shitty rural town that was taken off the map because the local economy never stopped sucking.

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Since the radiation levels dropped in the last few years it’s now easier to access the site as a tourist. How did you plan your trip: did you enter with a guide or organization, or on your own?
K: It’s illegal to enter on your own, you need an official guide. It’s possible, sure, but also quite dangerous. I do consider myself the adventurous type but cancer is not quite as high on the wish list.

How are the people in the area responding to the tourists visiting the Zone of Alienation?
K: No idea, I never got to meet any of them and I didn’t really have a desire to intrude either. I don’t think they care much about anything outside their backyard honestly, or they wouldn’t have been so steadfast in illegally returning to the exclusion zone repeatedly until the government finally gave up and gave them permission to stay. The tourists are mostly brought to the 10km radius area around the reactor, which is entirely prohibited as far as settlement goes anyway, so I doubt there’s much contact between the two.

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There have been many ‘horror’-stories on Pripyat: from people being attacked by bears to collapsing buildings. How did it feel to be walking around in the city, did it feel weird or scary?
K: I don’t really buy the bear attack story, sure you could run into a wild hog or have a piece of concrete break off and fall on your head but I don’t feel like there’s an elevated risk of injury if you keep your wits about you and don’t go wandering around in dark flooded basements without a Geiger counter. I’m sure most of these horror stories spring from the overactive imaginations of people who haven’t visited the place, or from random teenagers on the Internet who just saw that ridiculous horror movie that happens to be set in Chernobyl. I don’t know, I’ve been to Pripyat twice and it tends to instill a fairly hefty sense of respect and humbleness in me, as I expect it would in most, so I personally don’t see the point in making up these stories if you’ve actually been there. Not unless you’re a complete spiritual cripple. 

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Is there anything else you might like to share on your visit? A memorable event that might have happened?
K: Everything about it is memorable, between seeing the first Przewalski horse in the road and finding a mummified dog on the top floor of a high-rise, and climbing on top of that high-rise to look for the Duga radar array looming on the horizon, and reading children’s stories in the kindergarten dated two weeks before the disaster, I can’t possibly pick one particular event that stood out more than the rest. The entire experience is magical to me.

Books, movies, games: Pripyat has been a real ‘pop culture hype’ in the last decade. What are your thoughts on the town being featured in popular media like that?
K: For some reason I used to get passionately upset about it back in 2006 when this whole obsession started for me, but as the years passed I guess I’ve come to the sad realization that everything in this world will by default sooner or later be cheapened and boiled down to such a degree that it’s suitable for mass consumption in its absolute stupidest form. If it doesn’t belong to anyone anymore then it sure as shit doesn’t belong to Hollywood or me personally for that matter; what’s important to me is the personal attachment I have to that place, that’s the full extent of what I have control over and nothing else.

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Do you have tips for readers who might plan a trip to Pripyat?
K: Read about the place, its history, the disaster, the people that lived there and still do, learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet, read about what happened to all the animals and both the positive and negative impact the radiation has had on nature in the Zone. Read about the effects and types of radiation present and both the safe and dangerous places. It all adds to the experience and will help you absorb so much more of the atmosphere, plus you’ll actually have important knowledge regarding your own safety. The guides are misguided and don’t care. They’ll say every place is safe (the hospital basement is definitely not safe) and misquote factoids about the disaster and radiation in general. The more love and care and preparation you put into it, the better your experience will be.

Last but not least: any other trips planned? ;)
K: Yeah, I can’t wait to go back.

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That’s it for today, thank you for reading. A big thanks to Karol as well for sharing his beautiful pictures and interesting insights with Bleaq. If you’d like to see more of his artwork and photography make sure to check out his website. What do you think of Khomatech’s photos and story? Is Pripyat a place you’d like to visit? If you want to find more information on visiting Pripyat check out this website.

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