Pripyat. I was not ready for Pripyat.
(19 story apartment block on the edge of town) (Google map)
If I tell you "imagine a city of 10,000 people, but now it's completely
empty except for you and 4 other guys." You just can't. I know because
I'd been imaginging exactly that, myself, for weeks but the reality is
different. It's not really explorable because it's too big - think about
how long it takes to completely explore a 16-story apartment block.
You can't imagine doing that, once you're there, because you soon
realize that it makes absolutely no sense to try. At one point, just out
of curiousity, I sprint up 4 flights of stairs in one of the apartment blocks
and then run down a hallway looking in apartments at random: it's
just stuff, stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Oh, there's a piano - bang a few
keys and creepy noises come out - congratulations you've seen one
apartment out of 16 x 8 x 2 x 30 or so highrise buildings. 7679 more
Wandering around you realize two things: how strongly acculturated we are to territory. It just feels wrong to run down a hallway of a building, sticking your head in each apartment and breezing on. There's this sense that someone ought to tell you "hey, stop that!" and to stick with the places you belong, but there's nowhere here that you don't belong. The second thing that defines 'places where you belong' are the numerous trails that humans leave in occupied territory. In some cities, it's the sidewalks - you are supposed to go anywhere you want on the sidewalk (or the road if you're a New Yorker) but in Pripyat the sidewalks are sometimes just patches of concrete here and there under a sea of grass. There is no trail that says where you are supposed to go. You just go. At first I felt like I was misbehaving terribly.
I had a bag of pistachios along with me and was munching on them (washed down with Red Bull) to keep my energy level up, when I noticed that I was putting the empty nut-shells in my pocket to throw away later. I was walking through a city made of litter , but was so acculturated by my society that I was keeping biodegradable nut-shells in my pocket. I thought that was so funny I had to unzip and pee in the middle of the intersection I was walking through.
Since it was getting toward the end of the day, we disembarked outside of the hospital and explored it exhaustively. It is obviously a popular destination because it's been thoroughly rifled - but, like hospitals everywhere - it's full of lots and lots of stuff.
(In Pripyat Hospital) (Google map)
Here's what I can't do: I can't go on and on about Pripyat in detail. Because the
only way to experience the detail-level of a city of 10,000 people is to be
there yourself. Every room is a different experience, every vista is a
new wreckage. I start to get numb fairly quickly and just scout rapidly
through the building, covering space like an exploring machine. The logic
of the soviet-era buildings is not quite the same as US buildings and I don't know why: you'd expect the surgical wing of a hospital to be easily connected to some kind of emergency room door, but instead there are winding corridors with narrow doors and suddenly at the top floor of a building is a surgery.
There are endless numbers of supply rooms filled with bottles of stuff. We don't touch anything, ever, unless we can help it. Obviously people have gone through and re-arranged things, sometimes with a sense of irony. It seems to be wrong to me, to do that - I get almost the feeling that I'm in a nature preserve and shouldn't change anything. Other than my small contribution of pistachio-hulls I am careful to leave no trace of my passing. I carry my empty Red Bull can in my pocket so that some future explorer doesn't come by and find it and yell "HEY! That's not period from the 1980s! Continuity!"
My brain keeps struggling to make sense of what I am seeing; I want to know what everything is. But there's too much stuff and the familiar, when I find it, is very comforting. "aaah! surgical lights!" It turns out this is the neonatal wing. The room down the hall is a massive nursery.
(Someone castled the black king into the urinal)
Eventually I give up. Either every single piece of debris is significant and poignant or none of it is. Either it's all junk or it's all memories.
We get in the van and head back to the hostel. I have an official beer and go to sleep at 6:00pm. The others go for dinner and wander around Chernobyl town doing photography at night, violating the curfew, and feeling very naughty.