I have to say that this blog post is a long time coming, I had started writing this piece way back in January and here we are at the tail end of March.
In early December 2017 we made the decision to visit the nuclear disaster site of Chernobyl and the nearby city of Pripyat.
I've written a fair bit on this trip and will split this part into two blogs. The first part of this blog post will be all about what it's like to visit this undisturbed place and how it felt to be a "tourist" in such a dark place. The second part will be the run down of the tour in Pripyat itself and what we saw and experienced.
Lets start with the background.. where exactly is Chernobyl?
The site is located in the North of Ukraine really close to the Belarus border. The capital of Ukraine, Kiev is around two hours away. Chernobyl was the largest nuclear disaster in history.
The disaster took place in 1986 when one of the four nuclear power reactors exploded through a combination of a bad reactor design full of flaws and under trained staff. Ultimately high doses of radiation was leaked into the environment which contaminated the surrounding area. During the 1980's, Ukraine was under Soviet control and covered up the explosion to the rest of the world with cover up stories, and false statements.
The nearby city of Pripyat with a population of nearly 50,000 people was not told of the immediate effects of radiation exposure. Eventually, the entire city was evacuated. The inhabitants were only allowed to take necessary items as they were expected to return within 3 days. However, due to the incredible damage and dangers of the radiation, the town has been a ghost town ever since.
The explosion caused the area to have radiation levels 10 times stronger than the explosion in Hiroshima and since then there has been a 30 year clear up. In 2017 the government and G7 countries finished a "safe confinement area" over the reactor. The sarcophagus has sealed some of the most dangerous waste material in for 100 years. During the tour you can drive right up to the new sarcophagus and learn about how the Soviets had temporarily build a cover over the reactor. But this latest one is designed to last at least a century.
Is it safe to visit now?
Nowadays, the Ukrainian government has allowed visits to the area but with strict conditions.
You can only visit Chernobyl and Pripyat with an authorised tour company, and to enter the 30km exclusion zone you need to have a day permit.
The government has strict areas that are off limits for visitors.
For a short one or two day trip, visiting Chernobyl is not dangerous. Workers work in the area for two weeks at a time and must have a further two weeks away from the zone. It is also advisable to wear clothing that covers your arms and legs, and to have sturdy footwear. Since we visited in winter, this was the case anyway.
What did it feel like to visit?
I've never experienced anything like it before, walking around an abandoned city felt like I was in some sort of film set. Since we visited in the height of winter, the visitor numbers were low. You can stand in the overgrown forest and hear nothing but the crunching of snow below your boots. What I found bittersweet was that the area is abundant with nature, the area has laid undisturbed for so long that wild berries, mushrooms and foliage have taken over some parts.
(*Of course, eating these fruits and berries would kill you, and should not be touched)
Our group was the only people wandering around the empty streets at that time. We did not come across any other visitors and for me that was strikingly creepy. The atmosphere is eerie and you feel like you are time travelling back to the Soviet era.
I'd done research about visiting this area and had seen countless images of the empty kindergarten. On our tour this was one of our first stops. The children's art work is still on the walls, rusted tricycles sit outside, dolls and toy cars are strewn around the floor. You can see that there has been some aspects which are perhaps purposefully placed for the tourists. (One of the bunk beds had the creepiest looking dolls head on it, and it's the only thing in one of the rooms)
Yet I have to say that visiting the empty supermarket was emotional for me. It was there you could really sense that people had once lived in this wasteland. There were still products on the shelves, trolleys in the aisles and promotional posters left lying on the ground. Many of the buildings are decaying and the walls and windows are falling down with the infrastructures beginning to rot away. Due to the dangers of falling debris, you can only really look into the buildings from the outside.
The last sighting of Pripyat we came across was of the amusement park, the famous Ferris wheel still stands empty. The sickening part of this "amusement park" was that it was due to open on May 1st, 1987. However to distract the the population from what was really happening (The explosion happened on April 26th) they hurriedly opened the park early.
Apparently this amusement park was used for the setting of some video games
one being S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (Shadow of Chernobyl). I'm not a gamer at all, so I had no idea about this, but if you have played the game then you may find some of the sites familiar.
I wanted to write about the controversy behind visiting such a unique area. I've had people tell me that I'm stupid for visiting this area, I am being disrespectful and what not. But I feel that visiting dark sites like this is all an educational trip. I visited this site to gain an understanding of what happened, the history and to see for myself the true destructive power humans can have. I didn't visit for a voyeuristic experience, I don't enjoy seeing pain or distress but in reality it is a part of history. The appeal of Chernobyl is it's still somewhat off the beaten track. Dark tourism has evolved to other sites, such as Auschwitz, Ann Franks House and Ground Zero and there is still a mystery behind them. However, where is the line between visiting these dark sites. We wouldn't think twice about visiting the commercial "London/Amsterdam/Edinburgh Dungeons" or attending a Ghost tour in Edinburgh. It's just that this catastrophe is much more recent.
Of course if you are visiting these destinations, then you need to show and act respectfully. Overall, dark tourism sites are the best way to learn and gain an insight into such tragedies and I don't think there is anything wrong with that.
I also want to point out the safety concerns, if at whatever point there was a true risk to our-self then the Ukrainian government would not allow tours to go ahead, and from a personal point of view if we thought the risk was extreme then we would not visit. Simple.
We decided to use a company called Solo East for our one day trip. Simply based on people's recommendations and that we could book it online. The company offers a two day tour option also, but we didn't have enough time.
We were picked up in central Kiev and on route in the mini bus there was an option to watch a documentary all about the disaster. I've watched countless Chernobyl documentaries and I was glad the one they showed was new to me.
We were briefed on what was going to happen upon entering the checkpoint and beyond. Under strict instructions we were not to bring back any souvenirs and we were not to sit on the ground or touch anything.
We passed the checkpoint and entered the 10km exclusion zone, it's here you begin to spot the yellow radiation signs. Our first stop was an enclosed area of forest where there are abandoned cars and empty buildings, we hear of one resident (Rozaliya Ivanivna) who refused to leave her home. Then it was back on the mini bus to the last remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine. They have taken the decision to leave the statue to showcase this part in history.
You'll also notice that there are large numbers of stray dogs running around, we were told prior to the trip this was the case and they recommended taking dog food along. Volunteers are frequently in the area to help curb the stray dog situation.
For more information check this charity out - https://cleanfutures.org/projects/dogs-of-chernobyl/
Thereafter we went to the Kindergarten and were allowed inside this building, the only building we were allowed inside of. From there it was to visit the new memorials set up in honour of the fire men who were first on the scene on that night in 1986.
Before we headed to the city of Pripyat we stopped off for lunch. All of the food and ingredients are taken from outside Chernobyl as the food and soil in the area is unsafe for human consumption. Since it was snowing, we were glad of a nice warming vegetable soup with a side of chicken and potatoes.
In addition to the tour, we opted to pay for one Geiger counter. The purpose of these machines was to track the levels of radiation, the units of radiation will vary depending on your location. As we were approaching the exclusion zone it was interesting, and a little bit frightening to see the units go up. If you are in an area of high radiation then the Geiger counter will make a noise.
The counter went crazy for pieces of metal, which was no surprise really as the metal absorbs the radiation.
I will stop the tour pre Pripyat here and save it for part two, as you can tell I've got lots to say. Stay tuned for part two next week about Pripyat and the secret soviet detectors.