About the Duga Radar Station

The Duga Radar Station was part of the Soviet Union’s “Over the Horizon” early warning system to detect incoming nuclear missiles from the USA.

There were three such OTH radars acrosss the Soviet Union; one in Siberia and the other two in Ukraine.

The systems were operational between 1976 and just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Duga was given the colloquial name “Woodpecker” as radio operators could hear a distinct tapping sound that the radar eminated.

Over the Horizon Radar
A sign warning of radioactivity next to the Duga Radar Station

The main tower of the Duga Radar Station sstretches an increrdible 700 meters (2,300ft) in length and 150 metres (490ft) high.

The remains of the Duga Radar Station now lie rusting deep in the radioactive forest a few kilometers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

It is possible to visit the Duga Radar Station on most tours of Chernobyl (usually on the two day tours as there is not enough time to see it in just one day).

As well as the impressive steel structure, you can explore the abandoned control rooms and outbuildings.

My experience at the Duga Radar Station

Radar Control Room
Radar Control Room

After lunch we set off for the giant Duga Radar Station hidden deep in the forest. A checkpoint at the turning was guarded by two soldiers who were swatting the mosquitoes away with bunches of birch branches.

They checked our paperwork and we were motioned through. The road seemed to stretch in front of us for ever. On either side of the road birch and larch trees stretched into the darkness beyond. The trees had a bright red hue where the sun got in through the foliage.

We drove for almost half an hour down the straight, bumpy road deep into the woods and finally came to a stone building with more soldiers. More checks of our paperwork and a gate was unlocked for us to enter the site. Sergey told us we were going on a long walk and to bring everything we needed. I put water, sun cream and mosquito repellent in my bag and we set off.

Through the trees stretched a series of giant metal structures zigzagging 150 metres above the forest; it was an impressive sight! The radar station was one off three used by the soviets to detect incoming ballistic missiles from America, the others being in Kharkiv and Komsomolsk na Amur in Siberia.

Control Room of the Duga Radar Station

In front of the radar station was sandy ground with yellow and black signs warning of radiation. The scene looked severe, but also incredible at the same time. It was like being on the set of a film, but this was all very real! We continued walking along the structure and then around to the back.

Decaying brick buildings were set behind the radar and acted as the control rooms. We were led into one and up the stairs. Reels of tape scattered the floor and smashed equipment lay in the rooms. There were dashboards with different coloured bulbs and computers from the 1970s and 80s, all destroyed lest the soviet secrets be discovered.

We climbed the dark and dank stairs up to the roof for a panorama of the radar and surrounding buildings. Beyond it nothing but thick forest. I fell behind Ross and Sergey while taking photos and couldn’t seem to find them or attract their attention.

Russian Woodpecker
“Russian Woodpecker”

As I made my way out of the dark building, a large sense of creepiness hung in the air. I was half expecting a bear or wolf, or something more macabre to jump out of one of the dark recesses and I’m not afraid to admit that I had a few goosebumps.

Finally, I found my way out of the building and waited at the entrance. I thought the others may have gone into another building and followed a path round, but then heard Sergey shouting and managed to catch up with them. It was a little disconcerting being completely alone for those few minutes in such a place, but it was also quite a nice experience in a morbid sort of way.

High Levels of Radiation

High radiation
High radiation

As we walked around the abandoned buildings and through a tunnel of trees, the gieger counter clipped to my belt suddenly let out a wailing siren. I hadn’t turned it on, but it must come on automatically when in areas of high radiation. The sound made me jump and as we walked the siren grew more intense. I checked the reading and it was up to 10 (0.10 being the safe limit)!

We got back to the van tired from the walk. We had one final stop at a very creepy abandoned orphanage/nursery. Metal beds were rusting in the rooms complete with decapitated dolls and rotting children’s toys. If you wanted a location for a horror movie I couldn’t think of a more apt place. To add to the feeling, the Geiger counter went off again giving readings above 30! The highest amount of radiation experienced yet.

Dinner in Chernobyl

It was now 4pm and we returned to the shop to buy supplies for the evening; namely beers and mixer for the vodka we bought in Kiev (Khlibny Dar, the best Ukrainian vodka)! We then went to our accommodation which was a sort of hotel/hostel.

The room was comfortable enough, if a little sparse. There was a veranda where we could sit in the evening. Mosquitoes buzzed around and dead ones were stuck to the walls in bloody lumps. Sergey told us that we would be picked up at 6pm for dinner back at the Chernobyl restaurant and we had two hours to rest and relax. 

The evening meal was a soupy stew with pork and potatoes, washed down with a cold beer. After dinner we were taken back to the hostel. We weren’t allowed to leave so entertained ourselves with music and drinking on the balcony as the sun set. The mosquito repellent seemed to be keeping the worst of them away and a pleasant evening was passed in the small village of Chernobyl!

Read about our visit to Pripyat.

Interested in more “dark tourism”? Read about my trips to the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan and North Korea.

Legacy of Chernobyl

Although I recount my visit with awe, it’s important to remember there was and is a massive human and environmental cost. From the brave firefighters (the liquidators as they were known) to the children that suffered deformities and cancers, the effects of the nuclear disaster have taken a massive toll.

As such I have made a donation to the survivors and would urge anyone visiting to do likewise as it’s not just a theme park for the morbidly obsessed. If you wish to donate, you can do so below:

Chernobyl Children International

Steve Rohan

About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.

He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.


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