- The Chernobyl incident took place in April of 1986, and today thousands of tourists visit to see the aftermath for themselves.
- Although radiation levels are higher than elsewhere in the world, a day in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone exposes a human to about as much radiation as they might experience on an hour-long flight.
- The settlement of Chernobyl actually has people living and working there.
- Pripyat, however, is a ghost town.
On April 26, 1986, a failure during a test in theNo. 4 nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused an explosion. According to the World Nuclear Association, two people died immediately and 28 died within the next few weeks due to ARS, or Acute Radiation Syndrome.
The somber truth is, though, these are merely the deaths which can directly be attributed to the disaster. It’s impossible to know how the health of the citizens of Pripyat and the affected areas of Europe (even as far as Sweden) has changed due to the accident.
The government tried its best to keep the disaster a secret, but it didn’t take long for other countries to notice something was off.Other power plants measured higher than normal radiation levels even from over 1,000 kilometers away, but after examination, they realised the source was elsewhere. Additionally, it took over 24 hours before residents of Pripyat would be forced to evacuate, and even then they were told they’d be able to return home shortly after.
But they never did, and Pripyat has remained uninhabited since.
In March of 2019, nearly 33 years after the disaster, I ventured into The Zone to see what it was like today. This is what it was like to go into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.
My home base in Ukraine was Kiev, the usual starting point for any tours headed into Chernobyl.
Tours to Chernobyl began around 2011 when tourist interest grew and scientists realised the radiation levels were diminishing. Seeing it as a way to boost tourism, educate the public, and more closely examine the altered ecosystem of the area, organised tours to The Zone started.
In 2018, there were approximately between 64,000 and 67,000 visitors to Chernobyl. This year, tour groups anticipate they will hit 80,000.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone rests about two hours driving outside of the country’s capital, and it’s not a place tourists can visit on their own; instead, it’s necessary to book either a group or private tour.
I agonized over whether I wanted to splurge on a private tour and have a little more autonomy over where we went and how long we spent at each place, but ultimately went with a Gamma Travel group tour.
For first-time visitors like myself, a group tour is the best choice – no matter how much I thoughtI knew about Chernobyl, my guide knew infinitely more and managed to get us around to all the fascinating nooks and crannies of Chernobyl and Pripyat.
My tour began at 7:45 a.m. in Kiev.
I met Nataly, the tour guide with Gamma Travel, and the driver at the designated meeting point in the city. Two couples joined me – a pair of 20-somethings from Hungary visiting out of morbid curiosity like myself, and a Swiss husband and wife in their 40s who treated a trip to Chernobyl like some people treat a vacation to Disneyland. This was their fifth and fourth time, respectively, and they were decked out in Chernobyl souvenir shirts, hats, and sweatshirts boasting a neon yellow bio-hazard symbol.
“Why do you keep coming back?” I asked the man.
“Because I think it’s quite a special, unique place,” he responded simply. It was hard to explain, he said, but he admitted there was nowhere else on earth quite like it.
I was given a Geiger counter to measure radiation levels throughout the tour.
Before we left, Nataly handed me a Geiger counter. Tours into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are safe – the amount of radiation a visitor apparently receives in one day is equivalent to the amount you might get on a one-hour flight. Select spots in the zone, such as a certain patch of dirt in the ground or the corner of a particular structure, have higher radiation levels, though, and the Geiger counter allowed us to measure this.
“Don’t worry,” grinned Nataly. “You won’t need to burn your clothes or shave your head after this trip. It’s safe. And hopefully today we will break some stereotypes and help people understand that The Zone isn’t that bad. It gets safer and safer every year.”
After 20 minutes of driving, we made a pit stop to grab any food and drink for the day, and to use the bathroom.
Lunch would be provided on our tour (more on that later), but we still had the option to have any snacks or beverages in the car with us. Also, considering the abandoned state of The Zone, bathrooms would be available only in select places, so it was important to make use of them at any point – at checkpoints, in the cafeteria, and before the rest of our car ride up to Chernobyl.
Nataly informed us of how the day’s events would play out as we rode up to Chernobyl.
We would arrive at our first checkpoint in about an hour and a half, enter the 30-kilometer zone, explore places in Chernobyl like the kindergarten, eat lunch at the workers’ cafeteria, and then enter the 10-kilometer zone.
The 10-kilometer zone is where the power plant is located, as well as the abandoned settlement of Pripyat. It is one of the most radioactive places on earth.
At our first checkpoint at the 30-kilometer zone, we had to get out of the van and show our ticket and passport to the security guards.
Photography is permitted in almost all of The Zone except for security checkpoints and a few select spots around the power plant. I tucked my camera away to avoid any unwanted scrutiny from the armed soldiers at the gate.
We had a few minutes to go to the bathroom again and also shop at the small souvenir stand where my Chernobyl enthusiast tour buddies purchased their entire outfit. I grabbed a few postcards to send back home and noticed the eerie, 1940s song playing softly over the speaker.
“We’ll have this moment forever, but never, never, again,” Doris Day’s voice crooned.
While Pripyat is abandoned, Chernobyl is not.
I was under the impression that there would be no signs of life except for other tourists in Chernobyl, but that isn’t the case. As we drove the tree-lined road past the security checkpoint, our driver pulled over so we could get a closer look at a herd of Przewalski’s horses.
These endangered animals have lived in the area since 1998, and it’s believed the absence of humans has allowed them to thrive here.
The Zone is also inhabited by a number of people.
I was also surprised to learn people actually call Chernobyl home – for a little while, at least. For the few thousand people working at the power plant, they call Chernobyl home for two weeks at a time and then live off-site for two weeks, alternating with another batch of employees.
In Chernobyl, I would occasionally see a car or person walking around, but for the most part, it looked incredibly empty.
The architecture and monuments of the area were a step back in time.
I was incredibly excited to see Soviet architecture during my tour, but this statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin really helped to emphasise the world’s political state when Chernobyl and Pripyat were thriving.
We also made a stop by the fire department in Chernobyl.
Outside rests a monument to honour the firefighters who responded to the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. Many of the firefighters didn’t realise the impacts of radiation as they worked to put out the fires at the site and later became ill or died as a result of radiation sickness.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is also home to Duga Radar, a structure used as an early-warning system against missiles.
It’s impossible to explain how massive Duga is. At the time, in order to avoid any attention, it was marked on the map as a summer camp for children – even though it was a highly restricted military area.
After the accident, there were discussions about how to remove or destroy it, but due to its close proximity to the power plant, these proposals didn’t exactly seem safe.
Today, it simply stands as a reminder of the Cold War.
One popular stop is the kindergarten in Chernobyl.
The closer we got to Pripyat, the more and more creepy abandoned places we would explore. Chernobyl’s kindergarten – complete with ominous dolls and dust-covered, dilapidated furniture – was one of these places.
This would be our next to last stop in the 30-kilometer zone.
In the car on our way to lunch, I got my first glimpse of the New Safe Confinement (NSC, or New Shelter).
This enormous structure covers the nuclear reactor number 4 building.
“The New Safe Confinement will prevent the release of contaminated material from the present shelter and at the same time protect the structure from external impacts such as extreme weather,” according to European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
While I would only see it from a distance at this moment, I’d have a chance to see it much closer up later on in the tour.
My tour with Gamma Travel was a full day, so lunch was provided in the early afternoon.
Remember those employees who alternate living in The Zone every two weeks? This is where they come for lunch on their workdays.
First, though, I had to pass through a radiation detector.
Before I could sit down and eat, I needed to make sure I didn’t have any lingering radioactive particles on my body. I stepped into a metal detector-like contraption, placed my hands on either side and waited for the green light to permit me to pass.
Nataly said we’d encounter two more of the detectors – on our way out of the 10-kilometer zone which we would enter shortly after lunch, and once again leaving the 30-kilometer zone.
“What happens if you don’t pass?” I inquired. Luckily, there are no tourists left behind for not getting the a-OK from these devices. If someone is ever flagged and unable to pass through, the solution typically involves figuring out which article of clothing is setting it off and washing it.
“I only had one person with a shoe we washed a couple times,” Nataly told me, “and it just wouldn’t come clean. So we had to leave her shoe inside The Zone.”
After lunch, we passed through the second security checkpoint and got to see the New Shelter up close.
People still work at the power plant here, and I saw a few employees walking around. We were given strict instructions, though, to only photograph in the direction of the New Shelter – nothing to the sides of it.
At this point, Nataly pulled out a notebook with images to give us before and after comparisons or, in this case, to see what is inside.
The afternoon section of the tour was dedicated to the ghost town of Pripyat.
Pripyat was designed to be a fun, hip place in order to attract people to work at the power plant. Throughout the day, we would stop by restaurants, playgrounds, and even the residences to get a glimpse of what life was like for the nearly 50,000 people who lived there.
At a fork in the road, we stopped to admire the sign for Pripyat, a city which once held so much hope.
Right across from this sign is the start of the Red Forest.
This tree-filled area doesn’t look so red right now, but after the accident in 1986, the pine needles turned a ginger-brown hue which gave it this nickname.
This is one of the most contaminated places in the world. On windy days, tour groups sometimes don’t even exit the car to avoid any issues with radioactive particles which may blow around and latch onto people.
Our first stop in Pripyat was a cafe.
The glass windows had all been shattered, and the rusty vending machines outside were falling apart.
Nataly then showed us an image of what the area looked like before the accident.
The cafe sat right on the waterfront, along with a bridge nearby. The before image demonstrated just how much nature has taken over in the last 33 years.
Although other tour groups also explored Chernobyl and Pripyat at the same time, we rarely ran into anyone — making the experience all the more unsettling.
I remember encountering a group of tourists two other times, but otherwise, our small group wandered by ourselves.
We made our way to what would have been the busier part of town.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but this was once the main, bustling intersection of Pripyat.
We also got a glimpse of the hotel.
We didn’t go too close to it.
The signs for the aisles of the grocery store still hung from the ceiling.
The place was full of decaying furniture and shards of glass, but this was once where people would shop for food.
At the entrance to the theatre, paintings and frames lay strewn about.
The theatre itself isn’t safe to enter, and when we peeked inside and I saw holes in the floorboards, I understood why.
The amusement park is one of the more well-known places in Pripyat.
Like any first-timer, I couldn’t wait to see the amusement park for myself – I’d seen photos of it many times before and looked forward to snapping a few of my own.
As it turns out, the story behind the amusement park is even sadder than expected. The Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and other attractions were set to open in early May of 1986, which meant no children ever got to play on them.
“It’s a famous place because of that,” Nataly explained. “It represents dashed hopes and dreams.”
Against a cheerful blue sky, the Ferris wheel and amusement park area felt like an oddly melancholy place.
What was once a cheery place now seems ominous.
One of the cars of the Ferris wheel also possesses a high level of radiation.
Nataly held up her Geiger counter as it beeped rapidly and at a high-pitched pace, indicating higher than normal levels of radiation. Some specific places or objects have incredibly high readings, she said, although no one can really explain why this exact car does while the others don’t.
Before our tour concluded, we got the chance to explore a few final buildings.
Although I had seen numerous hallways with peeling paint and furniture haphazardly strewn around on this tour, it never got old. Each place seemed to tell a story of the people who used to be there and call it home.
While we stayed together as a group, we all remained quiet and to ourselves. It added to the heaviness of the experience and reminded me that The Zone isn’t just a photo opp, but it’s a place where people lived and worked.
One of the last stops was the gym, where the natural light and the trees outside were juxtaposed with moulding walls and destroyed floorboards.
It was striking to see how dilapidated it has become.
I loved getting to see a bit of what life was like for the people of Pripyat before they had to leave abruptly.
People evacuated Pripyat and left anything that wasn’t deemed necessary, or that they simply couldn’t take with them.
After wandering through some of the apartment buildings, one of the people on my tour motioned me over to a different room to show me this piano. I took a few photos of it before realising I was completely alone – and promptly got out of there to find the rest of the group.
The last stop was the most rewarding.
Having spent the whole day exploring Chernobyl and Pripyat, I knew we’d covered a lot of ground – but I never would have guessed just how big the area is.
Dismal, vacant buildings dotted the landscape, surrounded by a forest which was slowly overtaking the man-made structures. And on the horizon, the off-white dome of the New Shelter stood as a grim reminder of why.
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