Chernobyl is located 110km north of Kiev in Ukraine (part of the Soviet Union until 1991) and close to the border with Belarus. The nuclear power plant lies next to the city of Pripyat which was built for the workers and their families (the former population was 50,000).
Built in 1977 and comprising of four reactors, the nuclear power station at Chernobyl supplied approximately 10% of Ukraine’s electricity at the time.
At just after 01:00am on 26th April 1986 the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union exploded, sending a lethal cloud of radiation high into the atmosphere and across much of Europe. The world’s worst nuclear accident was caused due to a series of botched safety tests and in large part to the plant’s unsatisfactory design. If you want to know more about it the book Chernobyl 01:32:40 by Andrew Leatherbarrow is a good start, as is the 2006 documentary The Battle of Chernobyl.
Chernobyl has been something of a small obsession of mine for over 20 years and in the spirit of visiting extreme places to blog about, it was a next obvious destination to head to. I had visited Ukraine in 2007 and been to the excellent Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, but back then tours were a relatively new concept and only one or two places offered expeditions to the exclusion zone once a week so I missed the opportunity, promising to return one day. That day being 11 years later in May 2018.
I arranged a tour with Young Pioneer Tours who also facilitated my trip to North Korea. I opted for a two day tour rather than the usual one day excursion as I really didn’t want to miss a thing. I had managed to convince a good friend to join me on the trip and we met in Kiev after I returned from Kazakhstan.
We were picked up at our Hotel (Hotel Tourist Kiev) at 7am by Sergey, a young Ukrainian in a backwards baseball cap and obligatory Slav tracksuit bottoms. We were ushered into a WV Transporter and seated ourselves in the comfortable seats in the back. Sergey explained that the tour usually starts an hour later at 8am, but because 9th May, the day we were going, is a national holiday in Ukraine and the only day of the year in which families can visit their family graves in the exclusion zone, traffic and queues would be waiting for us at the first checkpoint.
After a brief stop for breakfast and coffee, Sergey pulled a TV screen down for us in the van and played “The Battle of Chernobyl” which details events surrounding the disaster and what has been done to minimise the impact, both in terms of human s and the environment. It was an interesting watch and passed the journey time well.
As the film finished we met the first queue of cars waiting to enter the exclusion zone. People were out of their cars and milling around, and Sergey sped through the melee branding his work permit and shouting “rabota” (work) at those protesting our queue jumping. We pulled up to the checkpoint and were told to wait for 20 minutes or so to fill in the paperwork.
The First Checkpoint
An Armoured Personell Carrier (APC) was parked in front of the red and white barriers and police and soldiers walked purposely around issueing orders to people. An old lada, ubiquitous in all former soviet republics, had broken down and was being pushed across.
As we were waved through the checkpoint, our guide explained that there are two exclusion zones around the site; a 30km zone and a 10km zone. A handful of people live and work within the 30km zone but only for 15 days at a time (15 on, 15 off rotation), but only military personnel and those connected to the ongoing containment work or the burgeoning tourism that occurs. No civilians live within either zone and after the evacuation no-one was able to return.
After the first checkpoint the traffic disappeared as people went to picnic at the graves of their relatives and ancestors, as is traditional. The road stretched long and empty into the distance surrounded by pine trees, verdant meadows and meandering rivers. To say the countryside here looked idyllic would be a massive understatement. The colours were luminescent; bright green leaves shone under a perfect azure sky.
After a few kilometres Sergey pulled over and led us down an overgrown lane away from the main road. One or two houses were set back from the lane and covered under heavy undergrowth. Our guide told us to have a look in the houses, which were covered in old newspapers, broken furniture and rotten wood. The air was thick with dust and mosquitoes and the aroma of decay.
Back in the van Sergey said that today we would stay within the 30km exclusion zone and go into the 10km zone the following day.
We drove into the small village of Chernobyl. The houses here were not as dilapidated as the small hamlet we had just visited, but they were all abandoned with peeling paint and overgrown gardens. A few modern looking buildings including a small shop, restaurant and accommodation for the workers completed the scene. A small museum was located in the main square and we had a quick look around. It wasn’t as interesting as the museum in Kiev; mainly consisting of a few photographs and a recreation of the reactor floor, but the artwork on the outside was impressive.
We walked through a verdant green lined with all the signs taken from villages in the zone. A sculpture of a man wrestling a bull stood further out in the field. It seemed like a metaphor for fighting the radiation. Another sculpture contained doves perched atop nuclear fuel rods.
Next we went to visit the only working church in the exclusion zone. There were a few more people around here as families picnicked in the graveyards for victory day. The onion domes of the orthodox church glinted gold in the bright sunlight. We then went to Chernobyl’s small grocery store to pick up a few bits (well, mainly a beer to enjoy in the perfect afternoon weather).
We were driven to a small restaurant for a lunch of borscht, pork cutlet, potato wedges and locally picked mushrooms (only joking, all the food is obviously imported into the zone, or at least so we hoped). The restaurant was a sort of log cabin with lots of polished wood. Another larger tour group was also lunching there.
Duga Radar Station
After lunch we set off for the giant Duga Soviet radar 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 and 500 metres in length; 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.
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. I made my way out of the dark building with a large sense of creepiness hanging 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.
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 Radiotion
We investigated other buildings, much the same as the first and exited at the beginning of the radar again. As we were walking towards the small settlement for the former soldiers and workers, I noticed a fly dangling from a branch with what looked like a bright green mark on its body. Upon closer inspection it was a small spider incapacitating its lunch. We stood and admired the unfolding battle for a few minutes and then it dawned on me that this small spider was literally glowing green. I’ve never seen a spider this colour before and thought about jokes people make about green glowing things in the radioactive zone. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence and these spiders are naturally this colour but it made me chuckle nonetheless.
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 ours 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 and the reactor here
Interested in more “dark tourism”? Read about my trips to the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan, North Korea or Transnistria; the country that doesn’t exist!
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:
If you would like to visit Chernobyl, Young Pioneer Tours can arrange group or individual tours.