During my recent visit to Ukraine, I decided to fit in a visit to the infamous Chernobyl exclusion zone. I’d researched it a lot online and it was clear that on short notice, a guided tour was the best option.
So that gray Friday morning I waited for pickup in front of the Dnipro hotel. I’d opted for a “Semi-Private” tour, as I wanted to avoid going in a bus full of rowdy tourists. That meant a higher price but also only 5 others on the tour, with a guide and driver.
I’ll be honest: I loathe the idea of having to take a guided tour together with strangers. There are ways to get in without going through official channels, but it sounded like you’d have to hike for multiple days and always be on your guard. Not an option for my quick, unprepared visit. 150 euro might seem like a lot, if you go on a “public” tour it can be much cheaper, but that seemed even worse to me. My hunch would prove right later.
Once we all got in the bus we started the 2 hour drive to the Zone entrance, driving along increasingly desolate landscapes. The other guests were mostly quiet, though one was annoying enough to make put my earphones in for most of the drive. We stopped at a gas station on the way, in an area nothing like busy chaotic Kiev anymore. It reminded me of riding through the Baltic countries two years ago, the landscape was similar.
After passing through the official checkpoint into the 30-km exclusion zone, consisting of square-jawed Ukrianian soldiers handling tourist’s official papers among the rickety, 30 year old guardhouses, we drove on to the sign denoting the start of the Chernobyl area. A bus with loud Polish tourists stopped at the same time, they got out waving flags and taking selfies and group pictures. I sort of held back a bit, this first stop made me question if I made the right choice with this tour. I was hoping we’d lose the Polish gang soon enough.
Another stop was made in the town of Chernobyl where our tourguide validated our papers, according to the vague Ukrainian bureaucracy requirements. The town of Chernobyl was insignificant before the accident, but now it’s where everything is located due to it being outside of the worst areas. Living quarters, shops, administration are all located here now: people who work in the zone all live in the town on and off.
We stopped at an abandoned kindergarden, where our guide pulled out the geiger-counter for the first time. She showed how some patches of ground are more radioactive than others. Nothing life-threatening of course, but straying of the path could mean you’d get contaminated soil on your shoes.
The kindergarden was interesting, as by all standards there was still quite a lot left, even though “edgy urbex photographers” had placed a lot of attributes around to stages pictures. Children’s toys with inside an abandoned, grungy building make for a contrast in subject that is ever so popular with the crowd that visits abandoned places (and definitely the one that pays for visit like this). Me, I’m not so interested in recreating a shot I’ve seen online so many times, especially since it’s hard already to be original with my other photos from this place.
Once we reached the main city of Pripyat, I felt things really got interesting. On the way there I’d seen rows and rows of empty buildings pass by. I remember thinking Skrunda-1 was pretty good, and how Pripyat must be similar, but Pripyat and the whole area is much bigger and much more preserved. We walked through the old soccer-stadium, where now a small forest was growing. What was once an open, wide city is now being enclosed by trees growing everywhere.
And then all off a sudden we were at the infamous fairground, the one that never opened due to the accident. The area is strangely devoid of overgrowth and debris, and our guide explained we were lucky to be alone here: on summer days it’s absolutely packed in this area. I was immediately relieved there were only 6 others with me, and that on my chosen gray day in autumn not many tourists venture out to the Zone anymore.
The walk through Pripyat was really the highlight to me. Our guide explained how authorities patrol this area and one can be checked for papers and permissions here. You’re also not supposed to enter any buildings at all, so one needs to be on the lookout if you do want to get a peek inside.
Our walk ended at the main square, which despite never having been there, I recognized from (embarassingly) some of the video games and movies I’d seen over the years that take place there. At this point I really started to realize how much of a quick-visit this would only be. I could spend hours going around here, yet we were due to get visit one more stop, have lunch and head back in the afternoon I’d have to come back here with plenty more time in the future…
We pulled over for a little interesting spot our guide wanted to show. I’d heard stories about how the uniforms of the firemen that were first to respond to the disaster, were stored in the basement of the hospital where they were treated right after coming from the explosion site. Their uniforms were, and still are highly radioactive, but our guide claimed the helmets were stolen and a piece was left behind by the thieves. She held up her geiger counter to it and the values shot up higher than anything we’d seen so far.
People I mentioned to that I would be visiting this site often responded that they were worried about safety. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding and fear about the radioactivity in this area. Truth is the international community has and still does put a lot of effort into maintaining and keeping this place safe. Most asphalt has been redone after being covered with radioactive ash, roadsides swept, signs put up. The amount of radiation one might experience here (if you don’t wander out into unknown, unchecked areas) is background radiation that might be higher than usual, but nothing dangerous for a short period. The people that work and maintain this place are on a schedule of a few weeks in the zone, a few weeks out, to balance the average levels out. A one day visit on marked paths is thus not exactly life-threatening.
We turned into a mysterious looking road leading deep into the forest. The concrete-slab roads are a clear sign of military construction in ex-Soviet countries, and at the end of this road lies a huge structure that used to be a big military secret.
The “Duga” radar, also called “Russian Woodpecker” due to the signal that could be received far and wide when it was running, is a cold-war era missile-warning system. It became disused when satellite systems presented better capabilities. It only became ope to visitors (with the necessary permits) in 2013. Still today a lot about it is not known. There was a whole military base around it, now abandoned and in disrepair, but one is not allowed to explore. What fascinated me especially was a patch of land where, though unmaintained, no trees grow even after decades, meaning some structure is close below the surface. A secret bunker of sorts?
The whole visit left me with strange feelings. I’d been to the Chernobyl museum in Kiev and read how many people had suffered and died due to what was essentially the Soviet government preferring cheap costs and high power production over safety and construction quality. To then have tourists wander around taking pictures and making jokes about how they will be “glowing green” by the time they get home is just a bit unsettling. I don’t want to pretend I’m holier-than-them, but I’d like to think my visit is more due to my interest in the history of this place and the context it has with where our world is heading right now, not because it’d be cool to get a selfie in the location of one of my favorite video games.
I will be coming back some time, hopefully with even less people accompanying me, and some more preparation to stay longer and fly my drone (permission needs to be requested a few weeks in advance).
If you would ever consider going here, do visit the Chernobyl museum in Kiev first to understand a bit what actually happened here. And do pay more to avoid being part of the bargain-price bus tour crowd, otherwise you’re better off just watching some good videos about the place.