The Polygon, more formally known as the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, is a difficult experience to explain, but I’ll try to anyway. Located in the north east of Kazakhstan, near the city of Semey and the Russian border, more nuclear bomb tests were completed here than anywhere else on earth.
This part of Kazakhstan is huge, and the nuclear test site is larger than many European countries, so it’s an early rise from our hotel in Semey in order to hit the road. Starting on major intercity highways, it’s then turn after turn, until we’re eventually driving on dirt roads. We could see why this area was used. There is really not much happening out here. It’s one of the most sparsely populated corners of the globe, with very little in the way of agriculture. A few semi-nomadic herders walking near their cattle or sheep dot the side of the road. We come across a statue to the brave Soviet individuals who came out here as part of the Virgin Lands campaign, braving the harsh inhospitable local conditions to try and turn this arid land into farming.
We finally get to the edge of the nuclear test site, no one quite sure what to expect. A large welcome sign? Maybe one of those tacky ‘I Love (insert place name)’ signs? But of course being in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing, literally nothing, just more barren flat land.
Driving through the nuclear test site was an eerie experience. The weather had gotten very grey and bleak with a whistling wind to add to the aura of a dystopian wasteland. Our first stop was the famous Atomic Lake, formally called Lake Chagan. In order to create a large lake to use for irrigation, a 20 megaton nuclear bomb was detonated here. Of course, no one wants nuclear water being used on their fruit and vegetables, so it now stands alone here. Some people choose to swim here and some locals even fish in the lake, however we decided to keep our protective gear on. The radiation coming from the shores of the lake were roughly 2 to 3 times safe levels. Our 2 day long exposure to large doses of radiation had begun.
The danger of radiation exposure isn’t as simple as just what levels you’re exposed to, but there’s also the accumulated dosage to take into account – what you accumulate over time. So, while we were now being exposed to high direct levels, the amount we were accumulating was still less than a frequent traveller, who accumulates more radiation over multiple flights than we were from these high levels over just a few minutes. Likewise, a chest x-ray, a normal medical procedure, exposes you to 10 times safe levels of radiation but only for a split second.
After roughly 40 minutes at the lake, it was time to take off our protective gear and hit the road. The infrastructure dotted across the wasteland is phenomenal, with huge underground bunkers, nuclear reactors, missile silos. We explored them all. It was strangely easy to imagine standing in one of the observation buildings watching the nuclear tests being conducted. All 456 of them.
That night we headed to Kurchatov, the main town serving this area. You could tell that this was a grand town, built for the best and brightest scientists and engineers the world had seen. You could also tell that 90% of the population had left. After the end of nuclear testing, there wasn’t much else for them to do. Those who stayed behind were disproportionately ethnically Russian, something that’s unusual these days in Kazakhstan. The hotel was a classic Soviet affair, and hadn’t changed its décor since the 1970s.
In the town, there is an abandoned former KGB building which we chose to explore late at night. Bigger than the KGB headquarters in the then capital Almaty, that’s how important the world’s largest nuclear testing site was. According to most medical reports, this town has cancer rates, as well as heart conditions, hundreds of times higher than normal.
Waking up to a nourishing bowl of porridge and a boiled egg, it was time for another day of exploring, this time to the site where the majority of tests had been conducted. This also happens to be the most radiative, which our Geiger counter made very clear, showing that the radiation levels were 20 times the safe amount. It was only when we got back on the bus after exploring that we all admitted to each other that we’d all started getting headaches and some interesting feelings in our arms and legs.
This was a weird place, with dozens of large concrete barriers surrounding the formerly flat earth, now scarred by the hundreds of tests. Several of the craters had filled up with water and some flowers had grown next to them. The desolate nature of the place could be beautiful if it weren’t for the sound of the Geiger counter reaching higher and higher levels and the large testing structures surrounding the main test site. Around the main test site are also an array of differently styled bunkers, a nuclear reactor, road and rail bridges and even an underground metro station! They were all built to study the effects that nuclear explosions had on different infrastructure.
One of the most surprising finds was the large painting on one of the testing structures by famous Kazakh artist Pasha Kas. The painting is a recreation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Of all the things we expected to find out here in a place the world forgot, it wasn’t this. That being said, we weren’t expecting a metro station either.
Even though we didn’t come across anyone else while we were there, there were signs of others being in the area. You could see the signs of young people who had taken the risk to put up some graffiti. Apparently, some truck drivers take a short cut through the test site in order to cut 500km off their drive, risking the radiation. The locals who live within the test site carry on their life as normal, some even claim the radiation is good for them, but this is no doubt just a defence mechanism.
After leaving one of the strangest places you could ever imagine travelling to behind us, we slowly made our way back to Semey. There were small stops to make along the way, but our minds had definitely been left behind at the test site, still trying to process everything we had seen.