There are any number of reasons why a city, town, or even an entire empire goes from thriving to nonexistent: climate change, urban development, and war are just a few of them. For Wade Davis – an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has spent decades traveling the world and immersing himself in indigenous cultures to learn about everything from hallucinogenics to zombies – the answer is simpler than that: "You know the old expression, 'If you don't study history you're doomed to repeat it,'" says Davis. "Undoubtedly, when Pachacuti built Machu Picchu, he had no idea that within less than a century, the convulsion of the Conquest would flood upon him."
From the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to a tumbleweed-ridden ghost town in Death Valley, the element of surprise is a recurring theme in the abandonment of a town-turned-tourist destination. And whether a place is taken out by enemy forces or Mother Nature, the lesson in visiting any abandoned city, according to Davis, is "to realize the ephemeral nature of power." Including our own.
"The Roman Empire lasted for five centuries," says Davis. "Five centuries ago, people hadn't even come to America. We look back and say, 'Well the Mayans weren't quite as big as they thought they were.' By the same token, the global civilization that we have – based on hydrocarbons, if you will – could be snuffed out just as the Incas, the Mayans, the Egyptians and every other empire." Consider yourself warned.
Pripyat was home to about 50,000 people, most of them employees of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and their families. So when the destruction of Reactor No. 4 led to the worst nuclear power accident in the history of the world on April 26, 1986 – sending radioactive clouds as far away as Norway – the town of Pripyat cleared out, too, in a hurry. The deserted homes, schools, hospital, and (particularly creepy) theme park of Pripyat appear in the exact state of abandonment in which the townspeople quickly left them (1980s propaganda posters and all).
Getting there: Because radiation levels have dropped significantly since the disaster of 1986, touring Pripyat is now legal, though you will have to carry a radiation detector and certain official papers are required. The best way to navigate this process is with a tour group like SoloEast Travel, who offer full one- and two-day tours of the area starting at $149 per person.
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