The Ferris wheel has remained still for decades, with rust slowly overtaking the brightly painted yellow gondolas meant to entertain children who will likely now never even see them. Nearby, the bumper cars have been entirely overtaken by the wild growth of weeds from between concrete slabs and even trees poking through the wires above. Many of the wooden boards underneath the swing ride have already rotted through.
Time stopped here one April and it has not started again since.
You are in Prypiat, Ukraine, in the heart of the Zone of Alienation, where once upon a time about 50,000 people resided, many of them workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
On April 26, 1986, in the process of testing an emergency safety feature, reactor No. 4 at the power plant exploded. In fact, it exploded twice, starting a number of radioactive fires and sending a radioactive cloud into the air.
Prypiat, built to house the power plant’s workers, was evacuated on April 27. Residents were told the evacuation would be temporary, and to take what they needed for three days only.
But the evacuation was permanent, and now, if you are lucky enough to go to Ukraine you can see a Soviet Union city frozen in April 1986, strewn with Soviet iconography and personal possessions. Dolls, a pair of slippers, a playground slide, mail, an old piano, children’s textbooks on the glories of the U.S.S.R., vintage (and radioactive) copies of Pravda, stuffed animals, family photos, gas masks, a toy drum. Everything is still there, if it wasn’t taken by looters, who either weren’t aware of how dangerous the radioactive items were or simply didn’t care.
The Chernobyl power plant continued to operate (minus reactor No. 4, of course) until 2000, and the people who worked there lived in Slavutych, a town constructed outside the Zone after the accident. Tourists are permitted in Prypiat, but people don’t live there.
For photos of Prypiat, Chernobyl and the Zone of Alienation, you can either check here or here. The latter site’s veracity has been questioned (the author claimed to have motorcycled through the Zone, but others allege she merely took a tour; either way, she did take the photographs displayed, and they are worth a look).
For a more scientific explanation of what exactly happened in the reactor, you may either check Wikipedia or this account in Earth Magazine. Here is a German article (in English) from Speigel Online about the disaster, 20 years later, or you can read this little piece from the Guardian about the area in 1993, which refers to a great deal of human activity taking place there. And if you are strong of heart and stomach, here is a Wikipedia page detailing the effects of the Chernobyl disaster.