After visiting Ukraine 4 or 5 times previously I had already seen the most interesting cities and places of interest. All that was left was the east which is currently under a territorial dispute and Chernobyl, the site of the nuclear disaster in 1986. I’d read previously in Dom Joly’s Dark Tourist book about his visit to this place a few years ago and it sounded quite an interesting and unusual experience. I talked to my some of my Ukrainian and Polish friends about my plans and more than a few of them suggested I shouldn’t go because they didn’t believe it was safe, but after doing my own research I was relatively reassured it was by the amount of visitors that go each year and a fact I read on one tour website that you receive more radiation on a 45 minute flight than you would having been on this tour for the whole day. Whether this is true, or just something that someone made up just to get more sales of their tour is another matter, but I decided all would be good and booked it by email with a travel agency in Kyiv and a western union money transfer (usually a sign something is a scam).
A few weeks later I arrived in Kyiv and on the Sunday of my first weekend I proceeded to wake up early and go to the meeting point outside the train station at 7 in the morning. I walked past the actual bus twice as I was expected a big coach to take us. On my third walk down the street looking for the tour, I saw a “Chernobyl Tour” sign in a small mini bus/people carrier. I was the first to arrive and after talking to the guide a little about what to expect and him telling me he was one of the guys that took Jeremy Clarkson and the top gear team on their filming trip to Chernobyl last year, a German guy showed up to join us. There were another 2 people scheduled to join us, but they didn’t show up so I had an almost private tour with just me, the guide and this other guy.
It takes 2 hours to get to the exclusion zone in which Chernobyl is situated so after a brief coffee stop we were on our way and watched a documentary about what actually happened and the aftermath which nicely filled the time up. There are 2 checkpoints on the way, the first 30 kilometres away from the reactor and another at 10km. At the first one our passports were checked to see if we were not terrorists. I don’t know how they would check this really, even though they had the passport number for a week before. It is Ukraine after all so safety isn’t usually their top priority.
Once inside the zone, our first stop was an abandoned village called Zalissya in which everything is dilapidated and apparently one Babuska (old woman) still lives in this village alone and government workers clear the road every day of leaves in Autumn and snow in Winter to make sure she can walk to the main road, presumably to catch a bus into the town of Chernobyl to get supplies. I could never imagine living in such place alone, but I suppose she doesn’t know anything else.
After this, we went back to the mini bus and took a left along a long narrow concrete road to see a disused soviet radar system which had only just been recently opened to the public. It was about as tall as a football pitch is wide and at least 3 lengths of one long. You really couldn’t imagine the scale of it without being there. The guide showed us a video in the car of him climbing to the top of it (illegally of course), crazy stuff.
Next stop was our first real taste of radiation; outside a kindergarten was a yellow and red warning sign with a radioactive symbol on it. As we went closer to the sign, the numbers on our dosimeter/Geiger counter started to rise and once passed 3 units a loud alarm sounded. These signs indicate radiation pockets which you should stay clear of. The guide then recalibrated the meter to only warn us at twice the level of that encounter. Now I don’t actually know what these numbers or levels mean so I had no idea if it was really dangerous or not or was just set so to make the experience more exciting.
We carried on, turned a few corners and got our first glimpse of the reactor from a few miles away and stopped for the obligatory photo opportunity. There were 4 active reactors in the complex, some of which were still running until the year 2000. Reactors 5 and 6 were in the process of being built, but construction was stopped shortly after the accident. Everything was left in place, so you can still see the construction cranes and everything towering above those reactors exactly as they were left all those years ago.
After our dosimeters went crazy after passing the Red Forest where most of the radiation was absorbed, we found ourselves at the famous Pripyat sign. A few minutes later we entered the town and was greeted by nothing but overgrown soviet style apartment complexes. At the end of this street we came to the main town square. Quite a few of my clients told me about the game Call of Duty in which a mission is set in this city. A few weeks before, I played it to get a feeling for the place and at this moment I recognised the place and the hotel at the edge of the square where I took a sniper shot at some Russian dictator.
We entered our first big abandoned building which was a supermarket, followed by a nightclub, cinema and into a sports hall with a direct view to the one of the most well known landmarks of the area, the abandoned amusement park which was never opened. We went out the side exit and started to explore the rides some more. Particular attention was drawn to a patch of radioactive grass which the guide jokingly said must be the most photographed grass in the world. We were given free rein to explore and do whatever we wanted so I ended up with lots of photos of this ferris wheel and accompanying rides.
Back in the mini bus and the next stop was the school, we were literally walking on literacy. There were mountains of books all over the floor covering whole rooms and science equipment and desks just left abandoned as if they hadn’t been touched since the area was evacuated 2 decades ago. There was one room which looked like the cafeteria in which there were hundreds of gas masks all piled in a corner. All looked very suspicious to me, why was they there in this particular place? It was the perfect photo opportunity, it just seemed almost too perfect and staged.
Our last stop in Pripyat was the Olympic sized swimming pool. Again all abandoned, broken and full of graffiti. It was really odd to experience such city knowing that all these people were only told about the disaster a few days after it happened and evacuated within a few hours. They were told they would return in a few days, so not to bring anything, but of course they never allowed to return once the full danger was realised.
After leaving Pripyat, we went to the closest point we were allowed to go to the reactor, only 200 meters away. Surprisingly this place didn’t have the highest radiation we had experienced. The dosimeter previously measured a reading more than twice as high at one of the radiation pockets earlier in our tour. Next to the reactor you can see them building the new sarcophagus which is planned to be slid over the existing structure within the next few years to start the process of dismantling and removing the radioactive material which is still inside after all these years.
We took the short drive back to the town of Chernobyl where we had dinner which was safe to eat as it’s apparently brought in everyday from outside the exclusion zone. It was some sort of meat with cheese and tomato and I had my first experience of buckwheat which was tasteless.
When passing the checkpoints on the way out of the zone, we had to go through a special machine which measured the radiation we had absorbed. If it was too high, they would make you stay in the zone forever and make the rest of your life there as to not pass it to other people. Only joking, but you would have to have to be decontaminated before they would let you go. Luckily nobody in our group got stopped, so all was good and we took the long drive back to Kyiv. On our return we were given a certificate that we had been and how much radiation we had had. A nice souvenir, although probably not so accurate.