A loud noise wakes us up. Someone bangs mercilessly in the rear door of our camper. Andrzej grabs pepper spray. Terrified, I carefully look outside. It is as bright as during the day. The car bathed in a silvery light of the moon casts a long shadow. In its darkness, there is a contour of a large, horned head. A dappled cow, time after time, butts our motorhome in stubborn attempts to move it from above a juicy tuft of grass. A booming “Get out of here!” ends a nocturnal attack of the cattle.
The morning reminds us where we are and how unlikely would it be for anyone to appear here – in the abandoned town of Chagan.
The town in the north-eastern part of Kazakhstan was built in the fifties. Back then – still within the borders of the Soviet Union. It was one of so-called mono-cities – settlements, functioning based on a single industry. It was a place where all the workers together with their families would settle. Inhabitants of Chagan were connected with a military airfield for the long-range bombers located 10 kilometres away. Along with the collapse of the Soviet Union both the airport and the town collapsed as well.
The early morning sun lay its rays on several blocks of flats standing around. Green saplings sprout from their devastated roofs. The windows look at us with blinde glassless eyes. Through their empty sockets, we can see the remains of wallpapers falling off the walls. The mother bear with two young ones, sitting in a forest clearing, hangs in scraps over a plastics cover of a notebook half-hidden under rubbles of what once was a children’s room. Here and there we catch a glimpse of a white sole of an abandoned shoe. Perhaps it is a remnant of inhabitants? Or maybe of those, who came after? Looters. Their work is almost perfect. There is not a single metal element left, nothing that could be sold for scrap, for milling.
Late in the afternoon, we stop at one of the better-preserved buildings of the airport. A painting of large red star flakes above a hole that used to be the main entrance. Debris and shattered glass are now the only equipment of the old terminal. Cold walls disappear, piece by piece, under a lush coat of vegetation. Trees grow from between gaps in concrete floors. Their branches push into windows, doors and ceilings. In the autumn rusty-gold coat, the landscape looks magical. And terrifying.
We try not to disturb the silence of the place, but our footsteps on the rubble sound unnaturally loud. Suddenly, as in response to their echo, we can hear a hollow sound. We hold our breath and listen. The muffled sound repeats over and over again. Before we start towards the safety of our car, a source of the noise appears – a herd of horses. Beautiful. With long manes and shining coat. Pricking their ears, they leave ruins – wild residents of the crumbling terminal.
Traces of horses can also be seen on a runway. Extremely wide and almost four kilometres long, it served flying beasts like M-4 “Bison” and Tu-95 “Bear”. It is here, where the steel birds carrying deadly atomic loads were taking off. They discharged them 60 kilometres away. Over a polygon in Kurchatov.
We also start to wish for wings at our chassis just after the first stretch of a route to Kurchatov. The narrow strip of asphalt, serving as the main road, grins at us with holes and gaps. Accelerator, brakes, accelerator, brakes. The constant back-and-forth movement causes a headache and nausea. But there are also better moments. Sometimes there are no holes. Then the asphalt rises and falls into hills and valleys swinging our three and a half tons of a vehicle like on a rollercoaster.
Kurchatov reminds the road we drove here. Its better part consists of post-Soviet blocks of flats, local shops, eateries and workers’ hotels. The ‘bumpy’ one hides just around the corner. Just like in Chagan, it scares with ruins of barely standing buildings without roofs, doors, windows. But there is also a part of Kurchatov, which shines with polished marbles of a new hotel and monuments to the Great Patriotic War. It glistens with bronzes of Kurchatov’s statue and whitewashed walls of government buildings. Amongst them – The Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology.
The Institute is a part of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It deals with radiation monitoring in regions where the Soviet Union carried out nuclear tests. It looks after their disinfection and research into the medical and biological effects of radiation on the environment.
“The Institute in its current form was created after the test field was closed in 1991. However, its origins are closely related to the origins of the polygon itself. Here, from the second half of the 1950s, the effects of radioactive radiation were studied in strict secrecy. We have been taking advantage of what has remained of this research and what is delivered to us on demand from Russia”, explains the Institute employee.
In the spacious museum room, in which we are the only visitors, she shows us a map with a tiny dot marking Kurchatov.
“When in 1945 the United States detonated atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for Stalin it was an obvious signal to join the arms race and develop the nuclear forces. At the head of a large-scale project, he set up the former chief of the NKVD Lavrenty Beria. In 1947, Beria assigned over 18,000 square kilometres of land for a location of a test field with the headquarters in Kurchatov. Of course, the location of the place was classified and did not exist on any map. To mislead potential spies, the name of the place was regularly changed to Semipalatinsk-21 or Moscow-400 for example. Only recently the city was renamed Kurchatov, in memory of Igor Kurchatov – the Soviet nuclear physicist who supervised tests in a scientific aspect”.
The legend of another map, under which we stop, bristles with colourful bars and graphs.
“Here you can see when and which nuclear tests were carried out on the polygon. Red bars mean air tests – loads detonated on specially built platforms or dropped from planes taking off from Chagan Airport. In blue are ground tests and in yellow – underground ones. The first test was carried out in 1949 by detonating a plutonium bomb at the top of a 30-meter tower. Its strength was 22 kilotons”.
However, the number of graphs makes a bigger impression on me than the strength of the explosion itself. It shows that between 1949-1989, 456 tests were carried out, out of which 111 were atmospheric ones. Those which effects are the most frightening and long-lasting.
The next exhibition refers directly to them. Under pictures of burned and hairless animals, there are jars with formalin. Their macabre content shows a deformed heart of a dog, lungs of a cow, pigs’ skin and internal organs which are anatomically most similar to human organs.
On a standing nearby ‘ground zero’ replica, we can see precisely where test objects were during the blast. In the centre of the matrix which resembles a sliced pizza, rises a miniature tower – an epicentre of the explosion. Between the rays drew on the model there are miniature planes, vehicles, buildings and animals. All of them placed in a specific order and distances so that they provide the most diverse test material for studies.
Opposite the model, there is a console. Massive, metal, full of clocks and measuring devices. Its pale-green surface bristles with rows of buttons and switches. A crude receiver of an old phone hangs from the sidewall.
“Please! You can sit down”, offers the guide.
So, I do sit down. I wrestle with the handset, run fingers over the switches. Suddenly, on the model behind me, the red LED lights up.
“It is the original console from which tests were initiated. They all had a direct telephone connection to the Kremlin”.
The awareness that I have just detonated an atomic bomb spreads a shiver over my body.
It intensifies even more because of a black and white film played at the end of the exposition. On a flat-screen of a TV flicker the main street of a city and blocks of flats standing on both sides. In the foreground, some hunched silhouette sneaks away. At the same time, behind the back of the figure, a gigantic black cloud rises. It soon shapes into a familiar ghostly shape of the mushroom cloud.
“Where were these shots taken? At the test field?”, I asked.
“No, no. The view is from here, from Kurchatov. The city directly borders with the polygon. Tests were visible with the naked eye.”
Before we can recover after visiting the museum, Jerlan – our guide – appears. He ushers us into an old, dilapidated Volga and we set off to see the epicentre of the first nuclear test of 1949. It lays an absurd 60 kilometres away from the place where we are.
Squeezing at the backseat, I try to make room for Jerlan and for an employee of the Institute who watches over our safety, by monitoring the radiation level of visited places. Right now, however, the driving style of our chauffeur concerns me more than the radiation itself. In a time much shorter than planned, to the accompaniment of a roaring engine and a metal moaning of the shock absorbers, we reach the first stop at the polygon.
“This fenced area is a place where radioactive remnants of explosions are buried”, explains our guide, pointing to a large rectangle surrounded by barbed wire. “They lay at a depth of four meters”, he adds.
For a layman like me, four meters of land dividing from radioactive waste does not sound sufficiently safe. But, maybe I am wrong?. Maybe these furrows of deep ditches running all over the area are additional protection?
“These trenches are in case of fire? To stop it from spreading?”
“Well, no. These are ditches, in which the wiring of an entire test site ran. They were connecting the headquarters with control towers and operating bunkers. All wires were dug up and stolen by looters.”
“But, weren’t they highly radioactive?”
“After the withdrawal of the Soviets, the entire polygon was left the way it was. They secured nothing. Even radioactive plutonium. Fortunately, almost no one knew its location. All the rest disappeared. Everyone came and took what they wanted. For sale, scrap. There used to be gangs of armed thieves here. They did not care about radiation. Easy money rarely goes hand in hand with common sense”, concludes Jerlan.
“And how about now? Can anyone enter the area without any pass or permission?”, I ask, puzzled.
“No, no. Now, every move here is closely monitored”.
The guide’s response strongly contrasts with the fact that we have already driven several dozen kilometres into the test field, and no patrol has stopped us. Nobody asked what we were doing here and why. What is even more concerning, there are no signs which warn us what area we are in and what are the consequences.
Only two buildings we pass along the way look strictly guarded. The first of them, densely surrounded by complicated looking devices, houses an active nuclear reactor. According to the guide, it was meant to be used to test various emergencies. The second complex contained a control point. Its only task was to monitor a trajectory of bombers carrying a nuclear test charge. In case of any deviations from the planned route, the outpost was ordered to shoot down the aircraft immediately.
Ten kilometres before the ‘ground zero’, several-storey, massive towers of reinforced concrete begin to appear. They shielded all measuring devices assessing explosions. The detonations were recorded with cameras taking pictures at a rate of 200,000 frames per second. The closer to the epicentre, the worse the state of towers. Their upper floors and sidewalls are in ruins. Finally, only what is left are polls of reinforced concrete with metal steps embedded in it.
Here the Institute’s employee tells us to change into protective clothing, shoes and a mask.
“Soon, we will reach the ‘ground zero’. The radiation level is much higher there than in the other areas of the test site we have been so far. It was safe there. Actually, the majority of the polygon does not show any or low level of radiation”, he explains, dressing us in white overalls.
“And what about you? You do not change?”
“No. Institute’s employees and residents can move around without protective clothing. It is a preventive measure only for tourists.”
Oh, right. Looking at a gauge reading the radiation level, it seems as if protective clothes are a bit over the top. At the measuring tower, the scale does not exceed 3 microSieverts, and in the epicentre, it rises only to 4.5 – the radiation dose emitted during a tooth X-ray.
There is an endless step around us. Only a thin line of the horizon separates it from the pure azure of the sky. Rays of setting sun, change the steppe into rippling gold. Under our feet, now and then, shimmer beautiful ponds. It’s gorgeous here.
But these beautiful ponds are craters made by the most terrible in their consequences atmospheric explosions. Those that resulted in radiation poisoning and burns. Those which highly radioactive nuclear fallout has disastrously affected lives and health of the hundreds of thousands of residents in the surrounding villages and cities. Those that echo with tragic consequences in subsequent generations: children born with terrible deformities, increased cancer incidence, premature mortality.
It was not until 1963 that the authorities of the Soviet Union signed an agreement with the United Kingdom and the United States on suspending all nuclear atmospheric tests. All tests were moved underground.
Lake Chagan, located 120 kilometres from Kurchatov, is one of their effects.
On the way to the atomic water reservoir, we stop for lunch. Different than yesterday chauffeur, with a much closer to my heart manner of driving, opens a trunk of the car and transforms it into a buffet. The guide cuts thick chunks of rye and wheat bread. A crust crunches a knife’s blade, and the mouth-watering aroma fills the air. Slices of tomatoes and cucumbers complete a feast.
The picnic brings me back to the times when my parents and I travelled around Poland. Hot tea in a thermos, boiled eggs, fresh vegetables, juicy apples for dessert. But we were picnicking in resin-scented forests or at lake shores. Not at the entrance to the bunker. Massive. Concrete. Half hid in a hill.
The bunker housed a command post. From here the atomic charges were detonated. Here the legendary red button was pressed.
Once full of sophisticated equipment and people running frantically from place to place. Now it stands empty. Half-collapsed. Even its reinforced concrete looted.
Now the collapsing colossus sinks under trash.
Researchers from The Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology say that the majority of the area of the polygon is safe and free from radiation. Some areas have already been allocated to cultivation and pasture. They optimistically look to the future and estimate that in the following years up to 80 per cent of the area will be clean from radiation.
Unfortunately, this optimistic future is lost behind the mounds of used plastic, old tires, glass and everything that just ended its useful life. Roadside dumps gloomily mark the further route to Lake Chagan.
At its shore, two men in waders and raincoats sit on stools. They intently stare at floats. Even heavy with rain clouds do not scare away avid fishermen. Neither clouds nor the fact that an atomic explosion created the lake.
After catastrophic atmospheric tests, the Soviet authorities began to marketing underground tests. The detonations moved underground did not carry atomic fallout, so they were sealed as harmless to the population. The authorities have gone even further, claiming that underground explosions properly applied can contribute to humanity by creating artificial reservoirs of freshwater for example.
Lake Chagan was created by a charge with a capacity of 140 kilotons. Placed almost 200 meters underground, in a vertical chimney secured with concrete, it made a funnel with a diameter of 400 meters. Water from a nearby river was channelled conventionally.
To show how safe the lake is, the Minister of The Ministry of Medium Machine-Building Industry of the USSR himself, clad only in bathing slips, crossed its length.
However, decades after the famous crawl, our guide again asks us to change into protective clothing. The coastline still shows some radioactivity. Without the gauge, unfortunately, we cannot check the level of radiation. However, a reaction of fishermen to our outfit gives us a fairly clear idea.
“Masks? What do you need them for?”
“We were told to wear them.”
Unshaved face shakes in disbelief, but the fisherman mercilessly spares us further comments. Instead, he proudly shows a net full of tossing carps.
Our driver has a similar opinion about a hazard.
“Meh! I have been fishing here for years. Beautiful animals! This big!”, spreading his hands wide he shows the size of the fish.
Nearly seventy years after the first tests, echoes of explosions gradually fades. Nature, with dressings of golden steppes, covers the wounds of once burned, battered earth. People walk on stones that once had radioactive killing power. They are fishing in the atomic lake and raise their eyebrow at the sight of tourists waddling around in their protective suits. They live as nothing has ever happened.
But it did happen. The evidence is heartbroken parents who, look after their mutilated by radiation children and tearful eyes of those who prematurely bid farewell to their loved ones, who lost their battle against cancer. The testimony is all those who must function in the darkness of blindness and the silence of deafness, because someone once decided to play god, detonating the atomic charge. As a part of the test.
For them, explosions will never cease.