Into the exclusion zone: a day trip to Chernobyl.

I decided to split my trip to Kyiv up into a series of posts, as I had a really busy few days there, and the day I’m about to write about deserves its own post. As you may have guessed from the last instalment, this post is about my day trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Born 2 years after the disaster, I only remember the (still ongoing) aftermath on the news: children with cancer and defects at birth, people living and breathing in places where the radiation levels were still dangerously high, eating crops harvested from the lethal soil. As I grew older I developed a (possibly somewhat morbid) interest in the accident and its ongoing affect on the societies of the countries it affected (Belarus as much as the Ukraine). Visits to the exclusion zone were first permitted in the year 2000, but I have only read about Chernobyl tourism in the last few years: I had presumed up to then that the whole area was completely off limits.

I knew I wanted to visit the exclusion zone on this trip. Not only to see the soon to be engulfed-by-nature empty towns and villages, stuck in soviet-era mid-1980s, but also to understand the true impact that this accident has had on several generations of the Ukrainian population, and will do for many, many generations to come.

My Mother was something of a hippy, and she instilled in me a distrust of nuclear power. I defy anyone who visits Chernobyl not to feel similarly. After all, Chernobyl isn’t the last accident of this sort that the world has experienced in the last 30 years: the display on Fukushima at the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv is a powerful reminder of this.

There is certainly a ‘dark tourism’ angle to Chernobyl. I saw a stag party of Irish lads, hungover and lairy, when I visited; and I don’t think they were there for the social history lesson. That’s not to say that all visits have to be strictly academic, but I think if you choose to go to a place of such sorrow you should take the effort to educate yourself, and look beyond the nuclear fallout symbols and jokes about three-eyed fishes. One of the other tour companies gives out flimsy decorators masks for the group to wear, which to me makes a mockery of the situation (many of those involved in the cleanup operation didn’t have proper protective gear), and they are also completely useless in providing any protection. It’s just a prop for an amusing photograph.

You can only visit the exclusion zone as part of a tour, and there are about 10 operators permitted to run them. I booked my tour through one of the biggest operators, called Chernobyl Tours, which offer both one-day and multi-day visits. People do try to sneak in (apparently inspired by a delightful zombie video game that was set there), but it’s obviously inadvisable. It’s dangerous in so many ways, and there are tough-looking guards patrolling constantly.

For those of you interested in the logistics of the tour, I’ve detailed it below. If you want to skip forward to my experience of the exclusion zone, then please feel free.

  • Firstly, you have to book in advance, and the tours are far, far more popular than I had expected. When we arrived at the exclusion zone border there were probably around 15-20 minibuses, and the company I went with had at least 3 buses visiting that day.

  • The buses for the tour with the company I used (Chernobyl Tour) meet at the main train station in Kyiv. If you book with them make sure you do as I did and drop a pin on the exact meeting place on maps.me, incase you can’t find it and can’t get wifi. There are several exits from the station and it’s quite complicated to navigate!

  • Make sure the name on your passport is exactly how you spell it on the online booking form, and double and triple check your passport number is correct too. The guards might refuse entry if the ID document you supply doesn’t exactly match their list.

  • You have to wear long sleeves and long trousers to visit the zone, but I’d also recommend long (knee or calf length) socks and some deet or strong bug spray. Nature has reclaimed much of the site and the bugs are particularly vicious. My citronella spray didn’t cut it and my ankles are still itchy days later.

  • Bring snacks and water! My tour included lunch in the worker’s canteen at the power plant, but it wasn’t quite haute cuisine. There is a shop at the entrance for souvenirs and snacks, but it isn’t cheap (supply and demand!).

  • Bring handwipes and handgel so you can clean your hands well before drinking water. I would also bring some soap for when you wash your hands, as there may not be any at the basins. You shouldn’t eat or drink outside, but it’s okay on the bus.

  • Bring toilet paper – this isn’t Disneyland, and the toilet facilities are very basic, if not just hole-in-the-ground shacks.

  • You can hire a dosimeter on some tours, but I didn’t bother. I mean, ignorance is bliss right?! You will be checked using a body dosimeter before you leave but the amount of radiation you will receive (IF you stick to the rules set out by the tour guide) is only equivalent to about an hour on a plane.

It takes around 2 hours from Kyiv to arrive at the first border point, at the entrance to the 30km exclusion zone. Here there is a bathroom and a souvenir shop, and the tour company’s paperwork and passenger list will be checked. On the journey the tour company showed us an old but still fascinating documentary about the accident (The War on Chernobyl), and also gave us a brief history of the events to give us some context. We were also given a map showing the route for the day, which makes a quirky little souvenir.Here’s the queue of minibuses waiting to enter:Our first stop of the morning was the small village of Zalissya. Pripyat, the model soviet town built to house the plant workers, is the place most closely associated with the accident but in fact a great many towns and small settlements were evacuated in the Ukraine and Belarus (96 in the Ukraine, 92 in Belarus). Most remain uninhabitable. The small village is now so overgrown that it’s hard to imagine how it might have looked in 1986.

Below you can see the very grand, classical House of the Soviets, with a hammer and sickle on the pediment and a communist slogan painted across the stage. There are also a couple of photos of abandoned houses, some still containing the belongings of those who lived there (not everyone had the opportunity to return to collect them, but the place was heavily looted in the post-communist years when security in the zone lapsed).

The photograph below is the entrance sign to the town of Chernobyl, after which the power plant was named. It’s only a small town, and now houses many of the exclusion zone workers in dormitories. There are signs like this one at the entrance to most Ukrainian towns and settlements, often built in a similarly futuristic, socialist-modernist style. I saw some pass by from the bus window, and decided that the next time I visit I’ll hire a car so I can stop to take photographs of bus stops, town signs and other monuments and relics from soviet times, which are at risk of destruction. There are many books, websites and Instagram accounts dedicated to recording this visual history; perhaps I’ll do a blog post at some point with links for anyone who wishes to do further research.

The next stop on the tour, a cold war missile radar called Duga-1, was a complete surprise to me: I hadn’t realised such a thing existed. It was hidden away in the woods and on maps was described as an abandoned children’s camp. To further this story the authorities even built a bus stop (see below) painted with bears and happy forest scenes, a supposed relic of the children’s camp. Of course no buses ever stopped there.

The radar itself is unbelievably huge, and photographs cannot do its scale justice. It was designed to detect missiles from the USA, and its proximity to the nuclear base is just a strange coincidence. Apparently at some point it will have to be dismantled lest it falls – the impact would cause the contaminated forest soil to spread huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere – but that’s a problem for another day and a government with more cash. The gates and turnstile you can see below are also part of the original infrastructure of the radar.

The last port of call before lunch was probably one of the most moving: the abandoned kindergarten in the village of Kopachi. There is still quite a lot of furniture, books and toys in the building, which make it feel even more unsettling to visit. The little empty daybeds, the hooks without coats and bags and the overgrown play area outside are a stark reminder of the impact the accident had on children across this region. It wasn’t always an immediate impact, but many lost parents in the cleanup effort, lost the homes where their families had lived for generations, lost belongings, beloved pets (no animals were allowed to be evacuated because of the difficulty of cleaning radioactive particles from their fur) and of course the long term health problems they encountered. Because of the poor management of information after the accident, local residents (and children in particular) continued to venture outside in the sunshine, inhaling dangerously high levels of radiation in the process.

Lunch was served in the utilitarian canteen, which serves food for the plant workers engaged in the construction of the new reactor casing, and in the maintenance of the plant, which ceased operations in the year 2000. The food is mediocre, without even a sprig of dill for flavour, but it’s a fascinating experience that gives a sense of how the old soviet worker’s canteens might have been. And don’t worry, there are hand washing facilities as you enter the building.

After lunch we looked at the plant itself, and the new sarcophagus which entombs it. For me this was the least interesting part of the day; in fact I don’t think I took a single photo. I just don’t have a scientific/engineering brain.

The last stop of the tour was undoubtedly the most interesting, for me at least. We had the opportunity to explore the town of Pripyat with our guide, and stuck our heads into some of the safer buildings. The town was built specifically to house the plant workers, and they enjoyed a standard of living much higher than their counterparts in other Soviet cities. To live here was a privilege for some of the USSR’s top workers – the city had one of the first supermarkets in the Ukraine, with access to consumer goods which were scarce elsewhere, a cinema, a football pitch and an amusement park, due to open just days after the accident occurred.

For a soviet-era design and architecture enthusiast like myself, Pripyat was fascinating. The symbols of the communist regime remain intact, and the futuristic mosaics and socialist-modernist buildings are not obscured by hoardings and billboards but by trees, bushes and vines. Because this was such an important town, top artists were brought in to create works of public art, such as the incredible mosaics in my photographs below. I wondered if anyone has audited the artworks in the exclusion zone; will they be left to rot or will someone rescue them for display in a museum or gallery, not only for their artistic merit but as didactic objects which can tell us about the story of Chernobyl?

The exclusion zone is probably the only part of the Ukraine not to have undergone mass de-communisation and it is quite surreal to find reminders of this, such as propagandistic posters and banners, painted for a rally which never took place, a huge hammer and sickle sign atop a squat, concrete building and photographs of Lenin hanging on the empty high school walls.

Below, from top to bottom:

  1. The entrance sign to Pripyat town.
  2. An empty, windowless tower block.
  3. Mosaics outside the cinema.
  4. A grand piano onstage at the music school.
  5. The hotel, its sign still standing.
  6. The main square.
  7. The supermarket.
  8. Posters and banners for a rally.
  9. The amusement park.
  10. The stands in the football stadium.
  11. One of the city’s high schools.

By the end of the day I was exhausted, covered in insect bites and keen to get in the shower. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is quite an emotionally draining place to visit, but every visitor to the Ukraine should make the trip. No amount of statistics, film clips or newspaper articles can bring home the reality of what happened in quite the same way.

I’d also strongly recommend visiting the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv, which gives a very detailed explanation of the accident and provides a fitting memorial to the thousands who were involved in the cleanup operation. I visited there the day before, and it provided me with a greater understanding of the events of 1986 (and beyond), useful context before my tour.

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