Around Chernobyl, the “zona”, as the Ukrainians call it, originally had a radius of 30 kilometers (18 miles). It has since been expanded to cover the areas of highest contamination.
Living in the zone, hunting, visiting, or carrying out any commercial activities are legally prohibited and punishable by law. The zone is predominantly woodland, with deer, boar, and wolves now roaming wild, and there are said to be some squatters.
At one time, the zone was home to around 120,000 people, including 90 small villages and the larger cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat.
Three thousand police and workers including scientists doing research are employed within the zone. They are usually allowed to stay for three or four days and then sent out for three or four days. However, some scientists work longer shifts, such as 15 days in the zone and 15 days out. Their health is continuously monitored, particularly for internal accumulation of radioactive elements.
Many of the plants growing within the zone are extremely radioactive, particularly the mushrooms. Trees killed by radioactivity and yet sill standing are called “red forests” due to their color.
Why would anyone want to sneak in?
“It’s something of a fad,” explains the Ukrainian Border Police who patrol Chernobyl. “It was started by a woman journalist a few years ago who claimed to have made the trip through the zone on her motorbike. It turned out that her account was fictitious, but we still catch and throw out around 300 intruders a year.”
The zone’s administration allows brief day trips to Chernobyl. Many of these visitors are devout Jews who came to pray at the grave of a famous rabbi in Chernobyl.
However, Kulik slipped in by the back roads on a Kawasaki dirt bike.
“Have you ever dreamed of traveling into an isolated area, the access to which is forbidden?” he says. “Not many people dare to reach the borders of the Chernobyl region surrounded by barbed wire. If you are lucky enough, there is a chance to get inside the abandoned place.”
What he found was utterly spooky. “Dense forests surround a number of empty villages,” he said. “Today, the villages are only inhabited by wild animals.”
Although the houses are in disrepair and falling apart, they were just too forbidding looking to camp in. Kulik preferred to sling his hammock under some trees.
“One would hardly want to spend the night in a haunted house,” he said. “I preferred to use a hammock under the open sky. The empty houses looked too grim.”
Perhaps the eeriest aspect of the abandoned houses is that they were evacuated in haste. Everything, including family photographs, kitchen utensils, and clothing are still there, as though the owners had just stepped out for a few moments and would return soon — yet 30 years have passed.
In the empty city of Pripyat, Kulik wandered through a deserted school where the ceiling had begun to fall on the neatly lined-up desks.
Throughout the zone, thousands upon thousands of trucks, tanks, helicopters, and other vehicles contaminated by radiation are stacked up and marked with signs warning people to stay away. Even so, occasionally looters get in and steal engines and other valuable parts.
Kulik eventually got lost in the zone and was caught and expelled.
“It was almost a relief to finally be taken out of there,” he says.