Unless you've been living under a radioactive rock, you've probably watched or heard of Chernobyl, the HBO hit miniseries that aired on Mondays, from 6th May to 3rd June. The final episode, of the five installments, had more than six million viewers and the program is the highest audience-rated show on IMDb, to date.
The show recounts the true story of the worst nuclear, man-made catastrophe in history, which occurred on the fatal morning of 26th April 1986, when Reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, sending radioactive particles into the atmosphere, and contaminating the environment, near and far.
About a decade ago, the government officially opened up the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to tourists, but only on regulated, guided tours. Prior to that, tours operated illegally and visitors tended to be extreme disaster seekers. Today, day trips cost around £85/person and include round-trip transportation from/to Kiev and lunch.
Since the debut of the show, Ukrainian tour companies have reported a 30-40 percent surge in bookings to visit the site. And, I must say, I've been feeling like a bit of a nuclear hipster, having booked my trip back in March 2019, before Chernobyl was televised and such trendy tourist destination.
When visiting the Exclusion Zone, sightseers must move around in prescribed routes and comply with certain safety rules. For example, it is compulsory to wear closed-toed shoes, long-sleeves and full-length trousers (even if it's 28°C/83°F, like when I went). Touching anything or removing items from the Zone is strictly prohibited. It is also advised to not to sit nor put anything down on the ground, as the soil remains contaminated.
My tour began at 8:00am, when I met the SoloEast group at Independence Square in Kiev. There were 18 of us on bus #5. Our passports were checked by our guide, Constantine, and waivers were signed before we hit the road. It was about a two-hour drive to the Dytyatky checkpoint.
There was a queue to enter the Exclusion Zone, whilst paperwork was carefully inspected. As we waited, we were reminded of the safety regulation forbidding us to photograph police, guards, checkpoints, etc., but I've never been particularly great at following rules.
To kill some time whilst we queued, Constantine showed us the level displayed on the Geiger counter (detector of radiation particles/waves). To put this into perspective 0.10 microSieverts (mSv) is about the level of radiation you'd get from a chest x-ray.
When it was our bus' turn at the checkpoint, soldiers examined our passports against our tickets, multiple times. Once they were satisfied that everything was in order, we were allowed to pass through the gate. Our tickets were then scanned again and a sensor was issued to each of us, to be worn around our neck at all times. I presume this tracked our whereabouts, but its purpose was never officially confirmed.
By the time we successfully crossed into Chernobyl Town, it was midday. We headed straight to the Desiatka Hotel's canteen for some lunch. Despite being renovated in 2014, this government-run hotel was certainly not a luxury holiday resort.
After filling our bellies with adequate food, we visited St. Elijah Church, which is still in operation. For some unGODly (see what I did there?) reason, radiation surrounding this church has been/still remains exceedingly low, in comparison to the levels across the rest of the Zone. Divine intervention?
The neighborhood across the road from the church was not quite as well preserved. The abandoned houses were contaminated, crumbling and deteriorated. There has been a great deal of vegetation growth over the past few decades and the natural world has filled in what was once a peopled space.
Following the explosion, the Soviets relocated ~120,000 people living within a 30 km² radius of the damaged plant. Evacuees were given very little time to gather their belongings and were only allowed to take necessities, so many places were left in a messy state. Deportees were told they'd be able to return in three days. However, authorities later deemed the area unlivable forever, making Chernobyl a 1986 time capsule.
As we passed by the last remaining statue of Vladimir Lenin in the Ukraine, we were reminded, once again, that this is a city frozen in time. 1,320 monuments to the Bolshevik leader have been dismantled, following the Ukraine's decommunization, but this last one, located in the deserted town of Chernobyl, will remain untouched.
After saying hello, and goodbye, to Lenin, we crossed the second checkpoint, having to show our tickets and passports again, in order to enter the village of Kopachi.
Only two architectural structures now remain in Kopachi: a brick building of some sort and a kindergarten. All other buildings in this village were demolished and buried, as an experiment, post-explosion. It turned out that burying the contamination meant that radioactive isotopes seeped even deeper into the environment. Just outside the kindergarten, radiation levels near the ground were measured at 6.65 mSv.
It's untrue that visitors are banned from entering buildings within the Exclusion Zone, despite tour companies stipulating just that on their websites. The Kopachi kindergarten was the first structure that we got to enter. It was eerie and home to many Chernobyl Chucky dolls.
After the kindergarten, we drove just a little while before pulling over to view Reactor No. 4 from across the river. The building of the concrete and steel sarcophagus (protective shelter) culminated in 2017, after two decades of construction and nearly $2 billion of investment. The structure traps 16-tons of uranium/plutonium and 30-tons of highly contaminated dust under it's arch. It is anticipated to last 100 years.
This was as close as I assumed we'd get to Reactor No. 4, but I was wrong. We got just about as close as one could possibly get, without going inside.
We then drove about three miles northwest of the power plant, arriving at the once modern city of Pripyat. This town was established 4th February 1970, as a model Soviet city, designed for the Chernobyl workers and their families. It has remained uninhabited since the Soviets ordered evacuation of its 50,000 inhabitants.
Back in it's heyday, Pripyat was a prosperous town, with nightclubs, cinemas, concert halls, department stores, hotels and even it's own football team/stadium. It is now, however, a modern day Pompeii.
Our walk through the ghost town began at Cafe Pripyat. Prior to the disaster, this was a place where young city dwellers (the average age in Pripyat was 25) would gather to chat and drink on the terrace that overlooked the water.
The cafe's once beautiful stained glass front is now in ruins.
Behind the cafe, a river boat sinks into the bank of the contaminated Pripyat River.
We then walked by Hotel Polissia, one of the tallest buildings in the abandoned city. Before it became radioactive, this hotel housed delegates and guests visiting the power plant.
The Pripyat supermarket would have been unidentifiable in its function without the shopping trolleys present. On the upstairs level, inhabitants would have once shopped for furniture, which explains the random couches scattered about.
Pripyat's Palace of Culture 'Energetik', was a play on words meaning both 'energetic' (lively) and also in reference to the energy being generated by the nearby power plant.
Energetik was designed for people to enjoy a range of recreational and artistic activities, all under the (literal) banner of political propaganda. The picture below shows the agitprop signs that were being created in April 1986, in preparation for May Day (1st May) festivities.
Included in the Palace of Culture block of buildings was a cinema, theatre, library, gymnasium, swimming pool, boxing ring and meeting halls. The only one we visited was the dilapidated cinema.
Outside the public restrooms, at the cinema, was an actual throne, which made me chuckle.
As we progressed through Pripyat, we came across this gas mask hanging on a tree. It served as another haunting reminder of the terrible tragedy that had occurred here.
The next location we visited was a battered indoor swimming pool.
Then, it was onward to the amusement park, the unsettling icon of the Chernobyl disaster. The park's inauguration was planned for 1st May 1986, but it never came, so now the bumper cars and the ferris wheel sit neglected, 30+ years later, while nature has taken over, in the absence of humanity.
The amusement park contains varying levels of radiation. The concrete areas are mostly safe, but there's a spot (marked with an 'x') underneath one of the ferris wheel carriages with the highest levels radiation that I saw on the tour (225.3 mSv).
After the park, we visited the abandoned Avanhard Stadium, which was once home ground for FC Stroitel Pripyat. Bum splinters anyone?
One of the most interesting parts of the Pripyat tour was being able to climb up to the ninth floor rooftop of an apartment building. The greatest danger here was not radiation, but the deterioration of the building. The flooring was uneven and unstable. It felt like the whole property could collapse at any moment.
From the top of the crumbling structure, I could see the overgrown streets of Pripyat and other decaying apartment blocks.
On the way down from the roof, I nosed around inside a few of the flats. I was surprised to see so much upheaval. Appliances were overturned and the floors were littered with broken glass and debris, but otherwise bare. It turns out that robbery could not be prevented over the years, despite Police/Army guarding. The whole city of Pripyat had been ransacked and thieves took all precious items that had been left behind. The ultimate karma being that the plunderers likely suffered from radiation sickness as a result of their burglary.
On the ground of one apartment, I saw a newspaper that had been left there for more than 30 years. The front page story was about Gorbachev's New Year's address to the Soviet people, in 1986 (thank you to my lovely seatmate on the plane back to London, for translating).
With the Pripyat portion of the tour completed, we got back on the bus and drove through the 'Red Forest', which got its name from the ginger-brown color that the pines trees turned after they died from high levels of radiation absorption. As we drove through the Red Forest, our Geiger counter started beeping and going mental. The Red Forest remains one of the most contaminated areas in the world today.
The last stop before our tour concluded was Duga-2, a top-secret Soviet military base hidden within the irradiated forest. Soviets used radar to detect potential missiles coming from the US airspace. The site officially never existed. It was marked as a children’s summer camp on maps. Like everything else in the Exclusion Zone, Duga-2 was abandoned in 1986.
Upon exiting the Zone, we were required to go through a machine that measures radiation on your person. If contamination exceeds established levels, items will need to be left behind. I was not 100% convinced that this machine actually worked, but I complied regardless.
If you want to see what the aftermath of a nuclear disaster looks like, there is no better place than the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. But get there before the rest of the nuclear hipsters show up. And before the buildings collapse. If you do, please visit with respect and remember that this is a site of tragedy, sorrow and sacrifice.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Bring your passport on the tour; it is compulsory
Pack insect repellent in the summer months
The currency is the Ukrainian hryvnia. Everything is inexpensive compared to London.
If you want to use a drone in the Exclusion Zone, prior permission should be requested