12 Facts About Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone 30 Years After the Disaster

It was 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986, that disaster struck nuclear reactor number 4 in Chernobyl. At first, Soviet officials attempted to hide the cataclysmic events unfolding in Ukraine, but when radioactive clouds were detected as far away as Sweden, news spread that the unthinkable had happened: a lethal explosion at a nuclear power plant.

Residents at the neighboring workers’ town of Pripyat weren’t told of the deadly radiation covering their homes at first. As official buses began evacuating the area, people were instructed to bring only a suitcase, since they would be able to return in a few days. But as the extent of the explosion became clear, the Soviet military established an official Exclusion Zone, a roughly 18-mile radius around the stricken power plant. About 115,000 people were evacuated in 1986, and another 220,000 in the following years, creating a desolate landscape of abandoned towns and villages.

Thirty years after the disaster, much of the Exclusion Zone—now encompassing 1000 miles and also called the Zone of Alienation—is still strictly off-limits. The area remains a chilling reminder of nuclear disaster, while at the same time drawing thousands of tourists each year and demonstrating the resiliency of nature.

1. YOU CAN STAY THERE ...

Hotel Chernobyl. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yes, there’s a hotel. It’s simple, best described as being in the “Soviet” style. According to the website Chernobyl-Tour.com, "visitors are provided with the iron-starched linen stamped by the Chernobyl special industrial complex." There is, however, Wi-Fi, enabling explorers the unique experience of being able to email friends and relatives from deep inside the Zone. The hotel is the only place for intrepid explorers to the Zone to stay, but its staff are only allowed to work on a strict rotation of 15 days in the Zone and 15 outside, to keep radiation levels to a minimum. Workers inside the Zone live in basic dormitories in the town of Chernobyl.

2. ... BUT YOU HAVE TO GET PERMISSION IN ADVANCE TO VISIT.

The first checkpoint. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Chernobyl is still impossible for tourists to get to without an official guide. There are strict military-style checkpoints at the 30km zone, at 10km, and at the entrance to the ghostly worker's town of Pripyat. Your name and passport have to be submitted to controlling authorities seven to 10 days in advance, and the guards check you and your passport numbers at each checkpoint. The early days of the Zone saw a large problem with local intruders who infiltrated the vast perimeter to ransack Pripyat and other areas, but since 2007 the Ukrainian government has severely clamped down on illegal intruders.

3. THE ZONE INCLUDES MORE THAN JUST CHERNOBYL.

The gymnasium at Pripyat. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Chernobyl was the largest town in what’s now the zone. Dating back to the 12th century, it was once a vibrant, largely Jewish town. The peaceful farming town, however, suffered at the start of the 20th century, when many of the inhabitants were murdered by first the Red Army and then during the Nazi occupation. At the time of the disaster, the population had increased, largely due to the nuclear industry, to approximately 14,000.

A deserted house in Chernobyl. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Today, the ghost town of Pripyat attracts the most attention. Opened in 1970, Pripyat was designed as a model example of Communist city life. It was also surprisingly youthful: The average age of the roughly 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat was about 26. The now-empty town had a discotheque, gymnasium, movie theatre, sports field, and the famous amusement park. One of the most-frequented parts of Pripyat, according to tour guides there, was the maternity ward, with the youthful population of Pripyat producing around 1000 babies each year.

As roads have steadily deteriorated, the smaller towns deep in the Exclusion Zone have become cut off and remain mostly unvisited to even the seasoned tour guides. Across the border in Belarus, the effects of the explosion were similarly catastrophic, if not more so. An estimated 70 percent of the fallout descended on Belarus, contaminating approximately a quarter of the country. The most heavily hit areas in Belarus are now part of the 834-square mile Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve, a mixture of forests and deserted industrialized areas.

4. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WORK IN THE ZONE …

A worker in the zone. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roughly 5000 people still work in the Exclusion Zone: mostly sentry guards, workers on the massive new sarcophagus, firemen protecting the still-volatile area from deadly forest fires, and service staff for the workers. Like the hotel staff, they live in the Zone on a rotation pattern of 15 days in, 15 days out, to keep their radiation levels manageable, staying in dilapidated concrete dormitories next to the hotel.

5. ... AND SOME PEOPLE LIVE THERE.

About 180 older residents also live full-time in the zone, having returned to their ancestral villages despite warnings from the Ukranian government, which has now largely allowed them to return to their homes to die in peace. A recent documentary, The Babushka of Chernobyl, tells their story.

6. SO IT’S NOT EXACTLY DESERTED.

Aside from the hotel, there is one bar, a post office that still makes one daily noon collection, and a supermarket, where produce is scarce but with the shelves are filled with alcohol. There is even a museum (never open) and something virtually non-existent in post-1991 Ukraine: a statue of Lenin. Because it remains frozen in time, Chernobyl is one of the few places where hammer and sickles can still be seen.

7. TOURISM IS BIG BUSINESS.

Nikolai, a tour guide in the zone. Photo by Luke Spencer.

The Exclusion Zone began allowing officially sanctioned visits, mostly for scientists and reporters, almost as soon as it was created. In recent years, tour groups have begun organizing brief, strictly controlled visits. One tour guide mental_floss interviewed, named Nikolai, says a couple has even gotten engaged on one of his tours. Beforehand, the proposer asked Nikolai if he could take them to the most contaminated area possible for the big moment. This year, the 30th anniversary, it’s thought that an estimated 10,000 visitors will step inside the Exclusion Zone.

8. THERE’S A CURFEW.

Inside Chernobyl, there is a strict curfew of 8 p.m. At night in the town square, one of the only things you can hear aside from the stray dogs barking is a strange sequence of rising electronic beeps coming from the forest somewhere to the north, which sounds a bit like the famous 5-note sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A tour guide said they come from the scientist's camp, which is constantly monitoring radiation levels.

9. EVERYONE GETS THEIR RADIATION MONITORED—EVEN THE TOUR GUIDES.

Every visitor coming out of the Exclusion Zone goes through a radiation screening at each checkpoint. If your levels are too high, clothes and boots are either washed or left behind. Taking anything out of Chernobyl is forbidden. Tour guides like Nikolai are checked regularly, and say they don’t receive anywhere near the annual levels of radiation deemed too dangerous.

10. TOURISM THERE MAY NOT LAST.

Luke Spencer

Despite the growing numbers of tourists, the Zone is still highly toxic and dangerous. The landscape is dotted with warning signs indicating where the “hot spots” are. Walking around is for the most part safe, but the greatest danger comes from ingesting radioactive particles. Nikolai has had to warn visitors against posing for photographs licking trees, eating berries, and rolling around in the earth. He particularly warns against following in the footsteps of “Bionerd23,” who posts videos of herself online fearlessly eating Chernobyl’s apples. Radiation levels in many places are safe, but parts of the Zone, particularly near reactor 4, and in basements of buildings such as Pripyat’s hospital, remain dangerously high.

11. THE REACTORS AREN’T THE CREEPIEST PART.

The eerie Duga-3 radar base. Photo by Luke Spencer.

One of the most remarkable parts of the Exclusion Zone is southeast of the reactors: the eerie Duga-3 radar station. Once one of the most secretive spots in the old Soviet Union, this vast construction of antennae and aerials was once pointed in the direction of the United States, listening in for incoming planes and missiles. On maps, it was marked down as a children's summer camp, while the locals were told it was a radio tower. Around 1500 high-grade technicians, scientists, and military personnel worked and lived here, wrapped in the highest levels of Cold War secrecy. There was even a kindergarten. Today, there is just one soldier guarding the peculiar complex, the propaganda murals on the walls decayed and long-forgotten.

Inside the abandoned military compound of Duga -3. Photo by Luke Spencer.

12. THE FUTURE OF THE ZONE IS UNCLEAR.

The zone will continue to be contaminated by the radiation from the disaster for about 300 years. Without many humans around, wildlife has returned to the area, which now teems with foxes, wolves, lynx, boar, moose, and rabbits, among other creatures.

While some would like to turn the area into a nature preserve, its future remains a divisive topic in the Ukrainian government, with such plans under threat from Ukraine’s nuclear industry, which would prefer to use the toxic landscape as a fuel dump for radioactive waste. Today, Ukraine remains one of the countries most dependent on nuclear power for their electricity—which means all that waste has to go somewhere.

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Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
7 Entertaining Examples of Ancient Graffiti
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graffiti from centuries and even millennia ago can reveal the grievances, passions, games, and ordinary business dealings of regular people from the long-lost past. Pompeii might be the most famous spot to find such scrawls, but it’s not the only place where bygone messages have been found. Here are seven examples of graffiti from the ancient world.

1. “I VISITED AND I DID NOT LIKE ANYTHING EXCEPT THE SARCOPHAGUS!”

A Chinese teen visiting Egypt prompted outrage when he wrote his name on the wall of the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in 2013. But he was hardly the first traveler to commit such an offense—there’s a long tradition of leaving “I was here” graffiti while visiting Egyptian ruins. One team of researchers recently counted over 1000 inscriptions inside the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings—many of which were from Romans who visited the site 2000 years ago. Their ancient declarations include familiar complaints of disappointed tourists: “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” and "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!"

2.“YOU LOVE IRIS, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOVE YOU.”

Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Plaàtarte, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Pompeii has dominated the study of ancient graffiti, and for good reason. There are many inscriptions and painted messages that survive on the walls of this Roman city in southern Italy, which was famously buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE. And these examples often offer rich insight into the lives of the city’s residents. Behold the drama of a love triangle, apparently played out on the wall of a bar (not the one above) in taunting messages between two men named Severus and Successus:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

(Reply by Successus) “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.”

(Reply by Severus) “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

3. “NIKASITIMOS WAS HERE MOUNTING TIMIONA."

Declarations of love and boasts of sexual conquest are not just the domain of modern bathroom-wall graffiti. Plenty of examples of such messages can be found in the ancient world. Erotic graffiti recently identified at the Greek island of Astypalaia documents a 2500-year-old tryst between two men: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona." The general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society, Angelos Matthaiou, told The Guardian: "Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing. The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too."

4. A MENAGERIE OF WILD ANIMALS

A winged lion at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra
A winged lion graffito at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, baboons, and dogs are among the wild animals inscribed on the blocks of a labyrinth-like complex known as the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra. This monument, in modern-day Sudan, was part of the Kingdom of Kush when the drawings were made more than 2000 years ago. Some of the animals also include religious iconography, such as a lion with wings and crown said to represent the deity Apedemak. Archaeologists don't know the function of many of the rooms in the complex, but some have used the graffiti to support their theories about the purposes of different sections. They've proposed interpretations ranging from animal trading stations and elephant training grounds to a holding pen for prey that could be “hunted” by royals who needed to prove their abilities.

5. THE “DRUNKS OF MENKAURE” VS. THE “FRIENDS OF KHUFU GANG.”

The tens of thousands of laborers who built the pyramids in Egypt were divided into gangs of workers—and they took credit for their efforts. Archaeologists who study the pyramids have found inscriptions such as “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of Khufu Gang” (Menkaure and Khufu being pyramid-building Egyptian kings) on bricks at the monuments of Giza. On some monuments, there's graffiti from one gang on one side of the monument, and graffiti from what archeologists think is a competing gang on the other.

6. A WORD SQUARE

A Sator word square in France
A Sator Square in France

In 2003, archaeologists discovered a new cache of graffiti written on the plaster walls of the basement of the Roman basilica at Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. Scribbled sometime after an earthquake in 177 CE, the inscriptions include the earliest known example of a word square in Greek, made up of five, five-letter words that can be read the same way either horizontally and vertically, like a 2D palindrome. (The meanings of the words aren't quite clear.) A better-known Latin version of this puzzle is called a Sator Square, as pictured above:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

The five words can be read from the right, left, top, and bottom. While their meaning has been debated, they may relate to a farmer named Arepo who is using wheels (rotas).

7. “MY HAND WILL WEAR OUT BUT THE INSCRIPTION WILL REMAIN.”

Though the vast majority of graffiti has surely disappeared over time, some graffiti-writers hoped their markings might outlast them. Take, for example, this Ancient North Arabian piece of graffiti at Palmyra in modern-day Syria, which was written well over a thousand years ago: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”

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Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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