Hazmat Suits & Geiger Counters: Visiting ‘The Polygon’ Semipalatinsk Test Site, Kazakhstan
In August we travelled to Central Asia to visit the Semipalatinsk Test Site also known as ‘The Polygon’ in Kazakhstan. My partner thinks that one of mankind’s greatest achievements (good or bad) was the development of the nuclear bomb and power and he’s always been fascinated by it. He’d already been to Chernobyl – which he managed to visit before they put the dome over the reactor building. Now he wanted to see a former test sites like the Soviet one in Semipalatinsk in East Kazakhstan or the American ones, for example in Nevada. We chose the Soviet one over the US because there is year-round access, whereas at the US sites you have to queue and visits are permitted only a handful times a year. In addition, we made the assumption that Semipalatinsk would feel more authentic. And it had a more authentic name for sure.
Planning a Visit to The Polygon in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan
From 1949 until 1989 the Soviet Union conducted 456 tests of nuclear bombs here (340 underground and 116 atmospheric). 18,000 square kilometres’ (7000 square miles’) of steppe in eastern Kazakhstan was selected, because it was in quite remote and scarcely inhabited. Still, people did live here, and no measures were taken to protect them. The health impact of the radiation can last for three generation and to this day is observed in the local population (you can learn more about it from distressing documentaries “After the Apocalypse“ and “Silent Bombs: Kazakhstan’s Polygon Legacy”). An extensive effort was done by the government, NGOs and international scientists’ community to clean up the area and the radiation in most parts of the Polygon is now at the normal level.
This is the only nuclear test site open to the public. The Polygon itself can be visited only with a local guide who needs to arrange a special permit for the tour, but towns around it like Chagan and Kurchatov are open to anyone. It took less than two weeks to organise permits for us and it seemed to be just a formality.
We found our guide at Indy Guide. Yerlan used to work for a multinational corporation before becoming a tour guide, so he had travelled a lot and spoke great English. Being a bit older than us he was already a grown up during Soviet Union times – he studied at Moscow University and served in the Soviet Army. In his stories he mixed his good knowledge of history with his personal experience, which made the whole trip even more interesting.
Nur Sultan (formerly Astana)
Our trip started in Nur Sultan (called Astana until March this year), where the capital was moved in 1997 from Almaty. It is a planned city filled with futuristic buildings and a bit exaggeratedly called the Dubai of Central Asia. It has a population of one million – mostly of young people who came here to accelerate their careers. Sometimes the city feels empty and as if it were built for a bigger population, but it definitely has a young vibe. You can feel it visiting any of the Checil bars at 2am.
Checil is a small chain named after Che Guevara. Besides his photos on the menu and some Cuban revolution quotes on the walls, written in Russian alphabet, I couldn’t really see why they chose to theme it like this! But Checil bars seem to be a popular spot for young Kazakhs to have fun, dance, eat and drink some vodka.
The trend of chains in the hospitality industry apparently got to Kazakhstan. Another chain venue we visited both in Astana and in Almaty was Georgian restaurant Darejani. We are both vegetarian and got lots of warnings before travelling to Central Asia that we would struggle to find good food. However, while Kazakh cuisine is meat heavy, everyone understood what we do and do not eat and was very accommodating. Even when we visited a small restaurant called Pepperoni in Semey, where they had no vegetarian dishes marked in their menu, our waitress was kind enough to not only point out which positions don’t have any meat in them (basically – potatoes and a salad), but also to tweak some dishes to suit us. And they tasted great.
Semey (Semipalatinsk) is the closest bigger city to the Polygon. It is located about 750 km from Astana. At first, we planned to go there by overnight train, however with our tight schedule seventeen hours on train seemed a bit too much and we finally decided to take a plane (one daily, direct flight).
Being set up in 1718, Semey is one of the most historic towns in Kazakhstan. It’s also where Dostoyevsky spent five years of his exile. Unless you’re really into the history of this part of the world, one day should be enough here.
We stayed at the Hotel Semey – a big Soviet-era building with very basic but big and clean rooms. Remembering the early nineties in Poland, where we are from, it felt like travelling in time.
We met Yerlan late in the afternoon a day before visiting the Polygon. Our destination for that night was 150km west of Semey – the secret city of Kurchatov (named for Igor Kurchatov, father of the Soviet atomic bomb). The town was flourishing during Cold War times. With a population of forty thousand it was four times bigger than today. Top Russian scientists specialising in nuclear technology lived there in the elite atmosphere. The public didn’t know it existed at all. What’s even more curious is those educated people were made to think they lived somewhere close to Moscow. In fact, they were over three thousand kilometres from Moscow! They were flown there by routes created in a way that they couldn’t guess a direction, their addresses had Moscow’s postcode, they could move there only with their closest family and the extended family was rarely allowed to visit.
About halfway to Kurchatov we stopped at the abandoned city of Chagan. During Soviet times it was a military town with ten to eleven thousand residents serving at the Dolon air base. In 1995 the military units were moved to Russia and all residents left the city. When the military left, the economic situation of this region worsened dramatically. People found ways to make a living by excavating copper cables and pipes, collecting steel rails and so on. The same was done in the whole Polygon area. Tonnes of radioactive metal were sold off as scrap.
When we arrived in Kurchatov we visited a local bar/restaurant where we had tasty Russian dumplings with potatoes (Yerlan called them in advance to ask for a veggie meal) and some Kazakh beer. After that we got to a hostel that looked like student accommodation. It had had its best times during the Soviet Union and hadn’t been renovated since then. The stay cost a few dollars, plus an additional three dollars for using a common shower room. It seemed that the two of us, our guide and the older lady at the cash-only reception desk were the only people staying in this huge dark building.
Visiting the Semipalatinsk Test Site (The Polygon)
Some Kazakhstan officials with a film crew were supposed to visit the Polygon in the afternoon that day, so Yerlan was a bit concerned whether we would be allowed to enter. This is why we started our trip at 5am. As I found out about 9am it was also a good idea for another reason. Even though we were in Siberia, in August it gets really sunny and hot there during the day and the Polygon is a large flat open space with no place to hide from the sun.
The Polygon/Semipalatinsk Test Site visit was a couple of hours drive in the dusty field. Without the concrete towers built to observe the results of the explosions, there would be nothing to suggest the dark past of this area. Most of the time Yerlan’s Geiger counter, which he had with him all the time, showed normal level background radiation. We had a few stops when we left the car and could walk around freely. We were even having our packed breakfast in the middle of the test site. As we approached one of the epicentres of the bomb explosion the three us had to wear hazmat suits.
We spent about 20 minutes there walking in the tall grass. The radiation we were exposed to was not much higher than what we’d get during a long-distance flight. Still, local guides aren’t allowed to spend more than 48 hours a year here. It’s probably not so difficult to achieve as only about two hundred tourists visit Semipalatinsk Test Site in one year.
Return to Semey
Just before midday we got to the junction of the Kurchatov local road with the main road, where Yerlan arranged transport back to Semey for us. A young driver only spoke Russian, our knowledge of which is extremely limited, but he really wanted to chat with us. About halfway we had the idea of using Google Translate’s voice recognition, which worked out quite well.
Of course, it would be the waste of time and space to travel with two tourists only! So we helped collect and deliver parcels, we spent some time in front of a block of flats not being sure what we were waiting for, but apparently our driver had lots of very important stuff to sort out there with various people. Finally we picked up a Kazakh women with two small children, drove to the shop where she brought lots of snacks not only for themselves but also to share with us, what we really appreciated, and we hit the road through the steppe back to Semey.
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