It’s been 30 years since the Chernobyl disaster changed the world. Its effects are still felt in the surrounding areas. I was born 4 years after the disaster but I have always known its name. I was aware of the disaster but had never really understood the causes, effects, or results. Over the years, I had seen many of the Buzzfeed or Dailymail collections of photos from the Chernobyl exclusion zone but a Chernobyl tour had never crossed my mind. Yet, in November 2015, I arrived in Ukraine for a two-day tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with ChernobylWEL.COMe.
For the longest while, I couldn’t figure out why I had suddenly had this desire to go visit Chernobyl. For a long while, I couldn’t figure out why I suddenly wanted to go. I was going through one of my computer hard drives looking for a movie to watch. One of the movies on my hard drive is a B-grade horror flick starring Jesse McCartney called Chernobyl Diaries.
Yep, I decided to visit a nuclear disaster zone because of a horror movie. The first half of Chernobyl Diaries is actually a pretty good horror movie. The second half goes off the rail but overall I enjoyed watching the movie. Much of the movie was filmed on location in Pripyat, Ukraine. I think filming on location really helped set the stage for the movie. The movie is about a group of young adults who go on a tour to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and then bad things happen to them.
Is visiting Chernobyl Exclusion Zone safe?
The answer is it depends. For a healthy adult, it is safe. The radiation exposure over my two-day trip was similar to two dental X-rays. If I was pregnant, I wouldn’t go near the zone at all. Same thing if I knew I had a high risk of cancer or had previously had cancer. One must also be over the age of 18 to visit the zone for the obvious safety reason.
Arriving in Ukraine
I arrived in Kiev the morning of my tour. I had a flight that landed at midnight and my tour started at 8:00 am. Immigration and customs when arriving in Ukraine is pretty easy or at least it was for an American. The immigration official didn’t ask me a single question. Now immigration in Amsterdam asked way more questions about why I was going to Ukraine. With my passport stamped, I got some local hryvnia from an ATM and found a taxi to my hostel. I was staying a small hostel near the Kiev Central Rail Station.
Meeting my ChernobylWEL.COMe guide
I meet my ChernobylWEL.COMe guide at the Kiev Central Rail Station. The meeting spot is easy to find. It’s the KFC outside the station. If one sees the McDonalds then one is on the wrong side of the rail station. My first order of business was to find the long term luggage storage in the rail station. I followed the luggage signs in the station. Once I found it, I discovered that the directions for luggage storage is in Ukrainian and Russian. There was an attendant to help me figure out how to store my luggage. He didn’t speak any English but he wrote my locker number and combination down. I had no clue how much to pay but he showed me by holding up the correct Ukrainian hryvnia bills.
With my large backpack stored, I was only taking a change of clothing and my camera to Chernobyl. It is safer that way. It means less chance of it becoming exposed to radioactive isotopes. The guide is easy to find. He knows how many guests he has arriving and is really good at spotting you approach the KFC.
My Chernobyl Power Plant and Pripyat Tour
The tour starts with a two-hour drive from Kiev to the Dityatky Checkpoint. ChernobylWEL.COMe has a comfortable van that seats about 14 people but our tour only 7 people plus the guide and driver. The van is set-up with a TV and the tour starts with on of the first documentaries produced about Chernobyl.
Upon arriving at the Checkpoint, we had to exit the van and present our documentation for inspection. Visitation to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is tightly controlled. The guards are very serious and take then time to ensure that names match passport and the guest are on the guest list.
Day 1 – Chernobyl City and Pripyat
Once we had passed inspection, we were officially in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The zone is a 30-km radius from the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station (aka Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant). V.I. Lenin was the official name of the power plant but once the disaster occurred it was changed to Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The Soviets would never allow the disaster to be known as the V.I Lenin nuclear disaster.
Our first stop was a small abandoned village of Zalesye. The small village consists of a grocery store and a couple dozen houses. The village was evacuated in the early days of the disaster. All of the building have been looted for valuables such as copper wire and furnishings. The radiation levels in this village is very low but was permanently abandoned. Our guide allowed us to enter a few of the buildings. I choose to enter one of the houses. It is hard to image that just 30 years ago, a family lived here. Now the wooden floor has collapsed. I can see shoes and non-valuable personal effects that weren’t worth a looters time. Papers are strewn throughout the house.
The next building we entered was the small grocery. Part of the roof has collapsed as well as it is clear that the copper wire was stolen sometime in the last 30 years. A couple of shelves and the remains of a safe are the only things left in this store.
The trees have grown into the village and are starting to grow right up against the houses and grocery store. It has taken 30 years but nature is reclaiming the land.
From there we visited the St. Elijah Church. This church is unaffected by the radiation. It has less residual radiation than Kiev. I wish it had been Sunday so we could have gone inside this historic church. While wandering the grounds we made friends with a cat. This was the only cat we saw while in the zone.
Our next stop was Chernobyl city. The city is located a couple of miles from the nuclear reactor. The city is an interesting dichotomy; it still has about 700 residents plus the rotational worker who are helping with clean-up and guarding the zone. The city is very much built in Soviet architecture and most of the building haven’t changed since the disaster. Today there are two hotels and one restaurant that serve the handful of tourists who visit the city. There is a small bar/night club for the workers as well as a small general store for everyone’s use.
As we approach the city, I notice that all above ground piping. All the piping is above ground because they can’t risk further contamination of the ground by digging into it. The city still boasts many of the symbols of the Soviet Union. It is one of the statue of Lenin; it is one of the few statues that survived outside of the Russia. The statue wasn’t torn down with the fall of the Soviet Union.
We spent some time wandering around the Chernobyl City Memorial Park. The park is located in the center of the Chernobyl City. The first thing that stood out to me was the small white signs with city names. These signs represent the cities and village that were evacuated in the days after Chernobyl. The backs of the signs are black to symbolize that the cities and villages were permanently abandoned. We visited several of the memorials including the newest one donated by Japan in honor of both Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The city is home to a large population of dogs. My guide calls them “hot dogs.” We are told not to pet them due to radiation (I did anyway). Many of the dogs meet us and were hoping for a handout from the tourists.
After a traditional Ukrainian lunch at the cities only restaurant, we headed to the highlight of the tour, Pripyat. Pripyat was specifically build to house the workers of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station. The city was home to about 50,000 people in 1986. In less than 3 days, the city was empty of everyone, but clean-up crews. Due to recent rule changes, we are no longer allowed to enter the buildings in Pripyat. This is due to safety concerns as the buildings are starting to fail structurally. I was disappointed but understand the Ukrainian Government’s concerns.
We walk through the city and visit the hospital where the first victims of the power plant where treated. Their clothing is still stored in one of the vaults in the hospital. We then walk through the city past the many apartment buildings to visit the docks and boat graveyard. Nature has slowly started to take over the city and the roads have trees growing in certain places.
Then, we walk through the main plaza. We pass the hotels built for visiting dignitaries as well as the grocery store and the famed Prometheus Cinema. The mosaic time was impressive. It was eerie to wander around. Not going to lie, I kept expecting radioactive people to jump out and grab me. The nuclear experts who arrived in the aftermath left the windows of the hotel open and the entire building interior is contaminated. The abandoned city has become a haven for graffiti artists. Our guided noted a few pieces that appeared since his previous visit two weeks before.
Our next stop is the famed Pripyat amusement park. The amusement park was scheduled to open as part of the Pripyat May Day celebrations. Due to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the amusement park never opened. As we approached the park, I asked our guide about wildlife in the city. He said they had been seeing a fox but he hadn’t seen him in the last month. About 10 mins later, a fox appears near the Ferris wheel. Our guide was excited to see him since it meant he hadn’t been eaten by the wolves. He didn’t appear to have any obvious effect of radiation but who knows. I did not that there weren’t any dogs in Pripyat, but that could also be caused by them wanting to live where people are so they can collect handouts.
Our last stop of the day was the home of the FC Stroitel Pripyat. FC Stroitel Pripyat was the part of the KFK competition of Ukrainian SSR, the 2nd level of the Soviet Amateur Football League and the 5th level of the Soviet Union football league system. Their home stadium was the Avanhard Stadium. The football (soccer) pitch is home to small trees now but some of the stadium seating remains but it is hard to see across the pitch due to the forest that has started growing.
Day 2 – Duga and Home Visit
Due to the final installation of the New Safe Confinement, we were unable to visit any of the nuclear reactors. The New Safe Confinement was moving into place during my tour. I would have loved to see it but alas we weren’t allowed near it. A second trip to Chernobyl is in my future to see this marvel of engineering.
Instead of spending the morning in the power plant, we went to visit Duga. Duga is a Soviet over-the-horizon radar system that was part of the Soviet early-warning network. This secret facility wasn’t revealed until the fall of the Soviet Union. With the wind whistling through the massive metal structure that made up the radar array. I would have loved a chance to climb up just a little bit of the tower but alas our guide was worried about safety and us being arrested by the guards.
I really enjoyed getting to walking inside the buildings here. My favorite part was the tour of the training room. I didn’t need to read Russian to figure out some of the pictures of American Cold War missiles. I could help but be reminded of my pictures from the Minutemen Missle silo in South Dakota.
During high school, I had the chance to see several of the United States fastest super-computers in Oak Ridge, TN. Now in Duga, I was standing in a room that once housed the Soviet Union’s fastest super-computer. Ironically, the cell phone in my pocket has more computing power than this room held in 1989.
I was amazed at the piles of discarded circuit boards. During the fall of the Soviet Union, Duga was looted and all the electronics were dismantled and the precious metals were melted out of the board. It is possible that some of this was radioactive.
On our way to the kindergarten, we stopped at the Chernobyl memorial to the men and women who helped with the cleanup. I thought it did a great job of honoring the firefighters who helped control the fires as well as the nuclear staff whose actions prevented a second explosion and to the doctors who provided treatment to these brave men and women.
We then traveled to on kindergarten located near the reactor. If one could see over the tree, it is possible to the reactor. It was kind of creepy to see the abandoned trees and well as it was a little unnerving to hear the Geiger counter going off due to the higher levels of radiation located in the kindergarten.
Our second to last visit was an equipment junkyard. It had a couple of Soviet tanks that were used as part of the cleanup. The tires are highly radioactive due to driving through the radioactive mud. We also got to explore a couple of rail cars that had been knocked off the tracks. The rail cars were pushed off the tracks to make room for supply and people trains.
On the way back I stopped to check out a building full of sand. I looked down and noticed that my Geiger counter was off when I turned it back on and it started going off like crazy. A quick glance at my guide and I started to back off. The building was used to store stand that had been stripped off the land and was the highest levels of radiation that we saw all trip.
As we prepared to leave the zone, we had one last stop. We stopped to visit with an 80-year old samosely. A samosely is the name of about 200 people who are living in the zone. These men and women are older Ukrainians who were unofficially allowed to returned to live in the zone after the evacuations. These men and women were mostly older Ukrainians who were content to continue farming on the land. He had great stories about living in the zone and was proud that he had returned to his family farm.
We all passed the radiation tests to leave the zone. Every person is checked to ensure that nothing radioactive leaves the zone.
The hotels in the zone are very basic. They have a reasonably comfy bed. As the only female, I got my own room with a double bed. The guys had two-man rooms with single beds. Each room had an in room heater and it quickly warmed up the room. The room had several power outlets. The internet wasn’t amazing but I could still upload photos to the internet as well as check my email.
The hotel is also home to the restaurant where all the meals are served. The meals are simple Ukrainian food that are rather filling without being very heavy. Each mean has a soup, salad, and a main course. I enjoyed trying some local cuisine without having to figure out what I want off a menu.
Would you be willing to go on a Chernobyl Tour?
Disclaimer: I was provided a discount on the tour by ChernobylWEL.COMe. All opinions are my own.