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Chernobyl tourists see relics among the radiation

By Matthew Knight, for CNN
  • Chernobyl's 30-kilometer exclusion zone home to strange collection of relics
  • Old Soviet radar site, Duga 3, once thought to be a device for mind control
  • An abandoned village near Pripyat has been left almost untouched

CNN's global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In January, we visit Ukraine and look at changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

(CNN) -- Ukraine has said it will this year lift restrictions on tourism around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, formally opening the scene of the world's worst nuclear accident to visitors -- but what is there for tourists to see?

Visitors to Chernobyl's exclusion zone will inevitably be drawn to the better-known sites that sit within its 30-kilometer radius.

The ghost town of Pripyat and the infamous remains of reactor number four are understandably must-sees for any Chernobyl tourist.

But the area is also home to some lesser-known but equally beguiling historical relics, from cold war radars to beautifully preserved church interiors.

Duga three

Towering over the forests to the northwest of Pripyat is Duga three -- the now defunct over-the-horizon radar system erected by the Soviet Union during the 1970s.

It had several aliases before it was finally decommissioned in 1989. Western intelligence services dubbed it the "Steel Yard" on account of the vast frame that trailed across 500 meters of forest land and rose to a height of 150 meters.

Disaster tourism: Chernobyl

But it was the signal -- a repetitive tapping noise -- heard over short wave radio bands worldwide that gave rise to its most famous nickname, the "Russian Woodpecker."

Its existence led to some frankly bizarre claims as to what the Russians were up to. Some claimed they had built some sort of weather control device, while others, presumably paranoid conspiracy theorists, believed that it was being used to conduct experiments in mind control.

Krasnoe village

Scores of abandoned villages can be found around the Chernobyl's exclusion zone. But unlike Pripyat, which has been somewhat ravaged by time and tourism, the village of Krasnoe has fared better, remaining largely intact.

It's a 30-minute drive from the main Chernobyl tourist trail, and you do need permission to pay a visit, but it's well worth it says Sergei Ivanchuk, of SoloEast Travel, which organizes tours to the exclusion zone.

Many of the buildings, including St Michael's Church, are still in good condition. All the houses are abandoned but the 19th century church is still used for worship, Ivanchuk says.

Flora and Fauna

In the months immediately after the disaster, the surrounding Wormwood Forest became known as the "Red Forest" as radiation turned its pines rusty red. But much of it has survived and returned to its natural color.

In the absence of humans, wildlife -- including wolves, bears, boars, elks and horses -- appears to be thriving -- although radiation in this area is still very high.

Chernobyl's dead zone breeds life

Even Chernobyl's old cooling ponds foster life with giant catfish -- some over two meters in length -- swimming their murky depths.

Pripyat Docks

The docks lie a few hundred meters north of Pripyat city center and are one of the most heavily contaminated areas in the exclusion zone. Half-submerged boat wrecks lie motionless at the riverside and vast cranes rise up from the banks.

Yanov train station

The place where many of Pripyat's 50,000 residents would have said final farewells to their city as the evacuation gathered pace in the days following the accident.

Beneath the so-called "Bridge of Death" -- where people flocked to watch the disaster unfold -- sit the rusting shells of train carriages and engines. One of the tracks is still in use and the station building still stands, but the rest of the site is slowly yielding to nature.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, while some of the radioactive isotopes released into the atmosphere during the accident still linger in the exclusion zone, they are at "tolerable exposure levels for limited periods of time."