Driving through Chernobyl

You don't always need eye-catching graphics, expert design, or a full complement of plug-ins to create a compelling website. Sometimes all you need is "a story about a town that one can ride through with no stoplights, no police, and no danger of hitting any living thing." Ghost Town is a photographic record of today's Chernobyl - and a tour of this 20th century Pompeii is more than enough to draw visitors by the thousands.

Ghost Town is very probably the most basic website ever reviewed in this space, yet it may make more of an impact on its visitors than productions costing tens of thousands of dollars. One can get a sense of that impact from the fact that Ghost Town was a ghost itself for a while - a victim of its own success as it blew past its host's bandwidth limits.

Back in operation with the addition of new photos taken this Spring, the counter on the current home page seems to climb as fast as the national debt clock, but new arrangements should keep the site operational in spite of its popularity. (If not - in another measure of the site's influence - mirror sites were popping up like mushrooms before the first collapse, and there's now also a sanctioned mirror of the current project.)

With grey backgrounds, default text, and looking like it could have been made in the early 90s, Ghost Town is all about content. Created by a Russian motorcyclist (Elena) who was a child during the reactor disaster, and now likes to ride through Chernobyl's 'dead zone,' this photojournal offers a 27-page tour with a handful of large images on each page. Beginning with a map of the area around the nuclear plant (complete with current radiation levels), a text introduction includes such helpful tidbits as the facts that it takes 2.5 times as much radiation to kill a chicken as a human being (100 times as much for a cockroach), that radiation on the middle of the road is lower than that on either side, and that it's best to ride alone - so you're not riding through someone else's radioactive dust. (Sound like fun? In fact, Elena - whose father is a nuclear physicist - is well prepared to judge and manage her risk level, but this is definitely not your typical Sunday ride.)

A brief recap of the Chernobyl disaster follows, and the 'travel photos' begin - opening with the ironic observation that the roads get better the closer one gets to the dead zone. What follows is an amazing collection of abandoned farms, buildings, and entire towns. While some images could be of any deserted building almost anywhere in the world, others have a definite post-apocalyptic (in the real sense of the word) feel to them. Grass overgrowing city streets, and a tree growing through an interior floor speak to the total abandonment since the 1986 disaster, while laundry still hanging from a balcony, and personal belongings (photographs, uncollected mail) bear witness to the urgency of the eventual evacuation.

Wide shots paint a different, but no less poignant, picture. Photographs taken from the roof of the tallest building in the town reveal sweeping views of an intact, but empty, settlement. A series of shots of government vehicles left in nearby fields is made even more sobering with the knowledge that every crew member of every fire truck and helicopter died within hours or days.

(Incredibly, there are a handful of people that still live in the zone and eat produce grown in the region. Of 3,500 who refused to leave in 1986, 400 survive.)

Elena also includes a reminder of the potential for fresh disaster, with images of the deteriorating 'sarcophagus' built around the crippled power plant. She then closes the collection with snapshots from the town's kindergarten.

And that's it. Some pictures and a bit of text. And if you're like most visitors, you'll be e-mailing the URL to your friends as soon as you leave.

Ghost Town can be found at www.kiddofspeed.com.

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