I will start boldly by saying that my visit to Chernobyl was the most fascinating trip I’ve ever taken and it will take something very special to depose it from the top of that list. I’ve always had an unusual obsession with all things post-apocalyptic so Chernobyl has intrigued me since I was a child. Where else in the world can you visit that will give you such a vivid glimpse at what a future without human life could look like? I knew I would be captivated by all Chernobyl had to offer but my experience far surpassed even the lofty standards I had anticipated.
I visited Chernobyl with Solo East and I cannot rate their service more highly. The trip was well organised, the transport was prompt, comfortable and the guides (although arranged by the Ukrainian government and not the company themselves) were extremely helpful and interesting. Dinner is included in the price and you will also receive a postcard to commemorate your visit.
Many people reading this will be worrying about the effects of visiting a radiation zone for a prolonged period but the trip really is quite safe. A video is shown on the outward journey explaining that a day spent in Chernobyl accumulates about the same amount of radiation as the flight you take into Ukraine. Before leaving the exclusion zone you are also scanned for radiation and, in the unlikely event of your being contaminated, you will be cleaned up without worry or delay before being sent safely on your way.
My trip began at 08:15 from Maidan (the central area of Kiev) with a two hour drive to the exclusion zone some 94 kilometres away. You will know you are near your destination when you begin to see signs with radiation warnings on them. Eventually you’ll reach a barrier and will be allowed to jump out and stretch your legs as your documents are checked for entry. Just beyond the border you will encounter the Chernobyl district limit sign adorned with Communist hammer and sickle and designs signifying the three things that made the area important: its port, industry and, of course, nuclear energy.
Next you reach an area that documents all the towns and villages that were abandoned after the disaster and some modern art pieces that have either religious connotations (the Wormwood construction) or commemorate the unfortunates who lost their lives all those years ago (the mural on the perpetually closed visitor centre).
You travel into the exclusion zone proper soon afterwards, heading past collapsed and dilapidated homesteads deserted since 1986. There are some folk, however, who decided they would stay behind despite the obvious dangers of living in the exclusion zone. In amongst the ramshackle buildings stand a few houses with neat gardens and fresh coats of paint, inhabited by stubborn older folk who were evacuated by government forces but chose to return again and again until they were eventually left to their own devices. The Ukrainian government now allows them to live in their ancestral homes and even provides them with provisions, electricity and financial support. Beyond these homes lies Chernobyl’s port filled with rusted, half-submerged ghost ships but we only paused briefly to observe from a distance so photo ops were limited. Driving a little farther along reveals a large stretch of apartment blocks which serve as accommodation for the many workers who toil in the zone on a two week on, two week off schedule to minimise accumulative exposure to radiation.
When the explosion occurred back in 1986, a group of local firefighters were first on the scene to battle the flames. According to an eyewitness report shown in a documentary on the bus on our way to the exclusion zone, the fire burned brightly in a varied range of colourful hues. Despite the fatal amounts of radiation present in the air the men arrived at the blaze wearing no protective gear and soon died of acute radiation poisoning. Liquidators who were charged with clearing the roof of the plant afterwards were kitted out in lead-lined suits and limited to clearing one spadeful of waste before vacating the premises. Despite these precautions many of the helpers still suffered terrible consequences as a result. Before the first responders passed away they reported a strong metallic taste in the air and an overwhelming sensation of pins and needles in their faces. It is likely they were aware they were destined to die a truly unpleasant death but they rushed into mortal danger regardless. The Monument to the Fallen Firemen was built in remembrance of their selfless and heroic actions.
The first structure you are actually allowed to enter is an isolated nursery school a mile or two away from the plant itself. Outside our guide demonstrated the wild swing in radiation readings between two areas not so far apart. These hotspots are scattered throughout the exclusion zone and highlight regions where large amounts of radioactive particles have accumulated within organic materials. They send the dosimeter wild in comparison to other nearby areas. We were led up a walkway bordered by wildly overgrown foliage to the interior of the nursery which is your first real taste of how eerie the Chernobyl area is. The entire building has been gripped by decay and gutted by looters. Only a few invaluable items remain: rickety bed frames, forgotten children’s toys, a few stray Christmas decorations and water-damaged books and jotters filled with faded Cyrillic text. There are craters in the floors, the paint is peeling from the walls and most of the windows have shattered (some of the panes were broken intentionally to minimise the build up of hazardous radiation within the building). The entire place is reminiscent of a scene from a horror movie and you can’t help but feel unnerved.
Once you get back on the bus you head towards the cause of all this devastation: reactor four of the Chernobyl plant (or the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station to use its less digestible official designation). Once you’ve been afforded the opportunity to have a look at the wreck from a distance you will be driven to within a few hundred feet of the power plant itself and the accursed reactor that is the cause of all the surrounding abandonment and decay. On the way you’ll pass the fire station where the aforementioned first responders were stationed before they were cooked alive by the radioactive fires. Most of the damage is encased in a hulking sarcophagus which goes some way to containing the harmful effects that still linger within the shell of the plant. This protective casing was hastily constructed soon after the disaster and is showing obvious signs of structural degradation, with trails of rust the most noticeable tell-tale sign. You will be surprised to discover that three of the reactors within the plant continued to function up until the final one was shut down in the mid ’90s.
Nearby stands the far more modern New Safe Confinement cover which, when eventually finished (it is running some years behind schedule and many millions of dollars over budget), will be slid into place, enclosing both the ruins of the plant and the obsolete shelter attached to it. It is at this point that the effects of the radiation can be most visibly noticed. Although the sarcophagus contains much of the harmful radiation large amounts still manage to permeate into the nearby environment. The reading on the dosimeter drops drastically when you stand directly behind the Monument to the Liquidators, demonstrating just how the escaping radiation waves can be blocked and interfered with, and rockets up as again as you sidestep away from it. Be careful not to take photographs of the administrative building as this can lead to serious repercussions and confiscation of your camera. It’s a pretty nondescript building so you’ll probably not want to shoot it anyway and I’m not really sure why it is so strictly protected.
The jewel in the crown of the tour is up next: the ghost town of Pripyat. The Pripyat town sign is great for a photo op and you are dropped off there accordingly. In the grasslands around it there are numerous signs driven into the ground that act as a reminder of where highly radioactive equipment used at the time of the disaster is buried. You’ll soon arrive in Pripyat proper, driving down a narrow, deteriorated avenue that looks as if it once acted as a footpath. Like many of the roads in the Chernobyl exclusion zone it is crowded by rampant plant life and the unchecked growth of bushes and trees. You’ll disembark in the town square although you might not realise it at first. The concrete is punctured with sickly-looking tress and hardy weeds that have integrated surprisingly well with the forested region we had just passed through.
Only certain sectors of Pripyat are accessible nowadays. The buildings are unmaintained and, after one crumbling structure collapsed during a tour and injured some of the visitors, access to large parts of the town are prohibited. Buildings that were previously part of the tour such as the hotel, for example, are now off limits. You will, however, spend a good amount of time wandering around outside and you are still able to take in a great number of fascinating sights. The most noteworthy spots you are able to check out are the rotten innards of the local supermarket – complete with rusted refrigerators and swinging aisle signs – and a storage facility for some remarkably well-preserved political canvases.
By far the most memorable stop you will make in Pripyat is the now infamous fairground. The iconic Ferris wheel and bumper cars were opened the day after the disaster by the Soviet authorities in an attempt to distract the residents from the events of the previous day and the damaged plant that was furiously pumping deadly radioactive elements into the atmosphere. You will be allowed ample time to walk about and drink in the sights. As you do so it’s hard not to think about the callous nature of the Soviet hierarchy who hushed up the immediate dangers by opening a theme park instead of immediately evacuating the populous. I actually snapped quite a few shots of the autumnal trees as I felt they held a rather unusual yellow colour – I’m not sure if this was an effect of irradiation or me imagining things!
Our final stop within the town limit was one of the area’s many schools. One of the cornerstones of Soviet Communist life was producing many children and so a large percentage of the population of Pripyat was juvenile – the town’s average age was around 26 years at the time of evacuation. As a result the schools are vast. Our guide gave us a short lecture about what life was like as a kid in Pripyat and declared a few spots off limits (apparently the courtyard in the middle of the school was never properly decontaminated and is one of the most irradiated areas in town) before letting us wander the carcass of the school at our leisure. For ten minutes or so I pushed into the deepest parts of the building and it seemed to have no end. Silence reigns supreme here bar the infrequent pitter patter of contaminated rainwater dripping from the ceilings. This is as close as you’ll ever get to experiencing the end of the world and you definitely get a taste of what it would be like to be the last person alive on earth.
The farther you get into the school the more disturbed you feel. The fear of becoming lost and ending up deserted in this eerie wasteland is palpable, growing until it becomes almost unbearable. Being alone in the bowels of this massive structure does unusual things to a person, making you steadily more jumpy and afraid. Irrational thoughts slowly begin to seem utterly plausible: what if some mutated creature lurks around the next corner? What if the building is transforming around me and I can’t find my way out? Eventually I cracked under the pressure and turned on my heels. I began retracing my steps at a greatly increased pace, praying I could remember the way I came through this labyrinth. The relief I felt when I heard the chatter of my fellow tour group was immense; the kind of intense isolation Pripyat provides has to be experienced to be believed.
There are hundreds of points of interest within the school. Most recognisable is the corridor where huge piles of gas masks were discarded minus the valuable filters – these particular components could be shifted for cash and were snaffled years ago by looters. You’ll notice many expected metallic objects and fittings are likewise absent, probably scavenged by the selfsame people. There are tiny cell-like rooms and darkened boltholes with single chairs placed in their centres that will have you wondering just what the hell went on in these areas back when the school was bustling with life. Certain corners and hallways are barricaded with everyday objects such as stacked desks, shelves and window frames. The place really is in a shocking state of disrepair with peeling walls streaked with foul lines of grime, thick layers of dust covering every inch and fragile stalactites dangling from the ceilings. You could quite easily be forgiven for believing you’ve stepped straight into Silent Hill.
Our guide gathered together our group and lead us to an adjacent building. Sport was hugely important in Communist Ukraine and the school’s gymnasium is testament to this. The warehouse-sized structure includes areas for every possible sport from basketball to gymnastics to swimming. Of course these amenities, like the rest of the town, have seen much better days. The floorboards of the basketball court are horribly warped and curl upwards like infected toenails. The swimming pool, in use by liquidators as recently as 1996, is now drained and houses stinking organic debris, scrawled graffiti and upturned shopping carts. An area once used for musical performances is now the tomb for a de-constructed piano. It was at this point that my camera which had seen much use over the last couple of hours gave up the ghost and ran out of battery. I was dejected not to be able to take more pictures but at least it had held out until near the end of the trip.
We finally left Pripyat and were seemingly heading for lunch when our bus swung down a claustrophobically narrow road hemmed in on both sides by trees. We drove for what seemed like an eternity. Gradually an impossibly large structure revealed itself above the treetops. At the end of this seemingly eternal road lies the Russian Woodpecker, a decommissioned nuclear missile tracking array which stands some 105 metres tall. It is an imposing yet secretive structure that was concealed from view by a dense man-made forest during the Cold War years. I tried my camera in hope more than anything and was overjoyed to discover that it had found a second wind from somewhere! Admittedly, it didn’t last long, but at least it allowed me to snap a final few images of this incredible tour.
Knocking on a giant gate adorned with silver Soviet stars we were allowed access to the compound by a pleasant-natured army guard and his canine companion. A brief stroll through a defunct militaristic area brought us to the base of the colossal array. Up close the Woodpecker seems impossibly big and one cannot help feeling insignificant standing in its vast shadow. Throwing health and safety concerns to the wind, our guide gave us permission to climb up as high as the third tier. Only myself and one other were foolish enough to take him up on his offer. Getting past the first level was a breeze but the higher you get the more nerve-wracking the whole experience becomes! The rusty ladders sway lazily away from the structure with every footfall and although it doesn’t seem too high as you climb, once you make it to the gangway and look down you realise just how precariously high you are. Did I mention I’m not a fan of heights? Like a coward I stopped at the second tier. On the way down I held on for grim life knowing one slip would see me broken and miles away from the nearest hospital. Our guide claimed to have been to the very top but I’m not sure if I believe him or not. If he actually did he must have balls of steel.
Once again we hopped onto the bus, this time to be taken to a canteen near the workers’ accommodation on the outskirts of the district. Dinner was included in the tour package and was decent considering some of the horror stories I’d read about the food before I left the UK! According to some reports I’d come across you’re more likely to suffer ill effects from the food in Chernobyl than the radioactive fallout! Perhaps I got lucky and stumbled in on a good day. What we received was nothing fancy – a basic salad, pork chop with chips and a small crepe served with ice cream for dessert – but it filled a hole and was welcome after the day’s strenuous excursions. As you wait for the other diners to finish off you can purchase some small souvenirs if you so choose but none of them seemed particularly interesting or well made to me.
After our bellies were full it was straight back on the bus and, after a few quick stops so our group could be scanned for errant particles and our vehicle hosed down, off on the long return to Kiev. The trip ended back at Maidan at 18:30, just over ten hours after our departure.
My visit to Chernobyl was extremely interesting and well worth the $120 I paid for it. The entire trip was fascinating from beginning to end for a number of different reasons and I left feeling like I’d really learned something. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in finding out more and witnessing first-hand the fallout (no pun intended) of the disaster. To reiterate, people concerned about radiation really shouldn’t worry as visiting the site is actually quite safe as evidenced by the number of workers who live and toil within 10 kilometre exclusion zone on a day-to-day basis.