Ever since Ruslan visited my junior school, it had been my goal to visit Chernobyl.
Darren and I chose to do our trip with SoloEast. The one-day tour cost £80.45/person and included lunch, insurance and the hire of a Geiger Counter.We took our tour on a particularly chilly October day, with a high of -3Cº
Following breakfast at our hotel, we made the 3 minute journey to the other end of the Maidan to our meeting point. Here, we had our passports checked and were given a safety briefing before heading off on our tour. The transport was a clean, warm and comfortable minibus. Approximately 20 minutes outside Kyiv, we stopped for fuel and coffee before heading towards the exclusion zone, which is approximately 2 hours north of Kyiv. During the transfer, there are some interesting documentaries to watch, giving a brief history of what happened in April 1986.
Our first stop was the Dytyatky checkpoint. Here, our documents were checked again by a member of the military, before we were waved through to continue our journey. At the checkpoint is a small shop, and most importantly, toilets! It’s well worth carrying your own tissues, just in case…
Having passed the checkpoint, we were officially within the 30km exclusion zone. From here, we visited two abandoned villages: Cherevach and Zalissya. Here, we had an opportunity to walk through the abandoned buildings, including a shop, community centre and domestic dwellings. We were met at our parking space by a very friendly stray dog. I was overjoyed to be told that it was OK to make a fuss of the dogs in the exclusion zone (I had specifically brought a bag of dog treats from home, knowing that it was permitted to feed the dogs and cats)
We walked down a semi-forested path, the original main road to the the village. The autumn leaves painted the scene in a golden light. Our Geiger counters clicked as we approached different parts of the village.
From here, it was onto Chernobyl Town. I was surprised to hear that it is still inhabited by workers who are involved with ongoing works at the Power Plant. There was a thorough explanation of the administrative functions of the town. We saw the Wormwood Star (Wormwood is an English translation of ‘Chernobyl’), and the memorial to the ‘lost’ villages, before stopping for lunch at the Chernobyl canteen. Lunch was a traditional Ukrainian meal of Borscht, followed by pork and potatoes. I’m personally a fan of neither, but I was assured by others in the group that it was very good!
After lunch, the tour continued. We saw the memorial to ‘Those who saved the World’ as well as a display of the robots that had cleared radioactive debris from the top of the damaged reactor. From there, we continued to the 10km exclusion checkpoint, stopping at an abandoned Kindergarten, where I was able to take some of the most haunting photos I have ever taken. Here, there were marked ‘hotspots’ where radiation levels spiked. These hotspots are intermittent, and came into being when the radioactive particles settled on the earth’s surface following the explosion and subsequent fire.
We stood on the main road, now eerily silent, with only markers to show where the village houses once stood. This village, Kopachi, was one of the first to be evacuated, and its wooden houses demolished and buried. The Kindergarten is one of a few buildings to remain standing.
From here, we set off again. After approximately 5 minutes on the road, the steel sarcophagus loomed into view. There, in front of my eyes, was the destroyed power station. It was far bigger than I had anticipated. Nearby, are unfinished structures which would have housed further reactors. A cooling channel snakes through the landscape, meandering past the doomed structures. We had a quick photo-stop here, before heading closer to the sarcophagus.
We were able to get with 270m of the new structure. Here, the radiation was surprisingly low- almost comparable to the readings we had received in Kyiv. The structure is obviously more than fit for purpose! Our guide explained how the structure had been built a short distance away, and then maneuvered into position on tracks. Photography here is restricted, as the site is still in use. It crossed my mind that this may also prevent the exposure of currently secret projects taking place on site. We were guided to positions where we were able to safely take the photographs we wanted, before heading off again towards the town of Pripyat. We stopped at the famous ‘Pripyat 1970’ sign, built to welcome visitors to the Soviet Model Town which had been constructed for the plant’s workers and their families. This was the part of the visit which I was most excited about.
En route to the town, we passed through the ‘Red Forest’, where radiation readings on our Geiger counters spiked sharply within a small space. It was quite exhilarating watching the readings climb higher and higher. I was amazed that the readings spiked in some areas, but not others.
Upon arrival at Pripyat town, we disembarked from the minibus and our guide explained that for the next two hours, we would be visiting a number of sites, before being picked up by our driver to continue our journey.
We visited first a supermarket, one of the first in the USSR to have been built. Looking at the broken, rusting fixtures and fittings, my mind was drawn back to an image we had seen earlier that day, of a bustling supermarket. We also stopped by a municipal store building which contained posters and banners which would have been displayed for the locals. From here, we headed to perhaps the most photographed attraction in the town: the theme park.
With its rusting ferris wheel and dodgems slowly fading into the autumnal colours, I listened as our guide explained that the park had never opened. It was due to open as part of the upcoming May Day festivities, but before it had the chance, the townsfolk were evacuated. We then walked the short distance to the stadium- the only sporting stadium in which I have ever stood on the track! This too, is slowly being reclaimed by nature: the running track now littered with weeds. We were shown ‘before’ shots of the stadium when it was a functioning hub of the community.
Next, we went to abandoned swimming pool, our feet crunching over broken glass, as we picked our way across the decaying basketball courts, and into the swimming hall. The pool, long empty of water, is now full of graffit and more broken glass, but the diving boards and the clock remain. It was not hard to imagine this in its heyday.
We went from sports to education. We stopped at one of the local schools, now littered with respirators in a haunting tribute to what once was. Here, there were more perfect photo opportunities. Working in a school, it was quite thought provoking walking through the now empty corridors. I wonder what the children would have thought, being told that there would be no school the next day?
Our time in Pripyat was coming to an end.
We finished our tour of the town at the once bustling river port. Here, we met some wizzened old gentlemen fishing in the river, unperturbed by the risks impressed upon us Westerners. They gazed at us as we gazed at them: curiously, and with mild bemusement. The stained glass in the port building remains, and the watery autumnal light was shining through. The light was beginning to drop. It was time to go.
From here, we drove via a few hotspots, towards DUGA 3, a Soviet Radar installation hidden deep in the forest. It occurred to me that, here, the forest was much like Rendlesham Forest. I wondered momentarily what may be hidden on our side?
The site was far bigger than I had imagined. Here, I befriended a stray dog, who remained with us for the whole time we walked the site. we visited abandoned buildings, and walked the length of a military training establishment, before emerging in a forest clearing to behold the radar installation. It was HUGE! Its use remains something of an enigma, and it is one of two Over the Horizon radar structures in the former USSR- the other is located in Siberia.
From here, we began the long journey back to Kyiv. On the return journey, one goes through compulsory decontamination checks, whereby one stands in a rather frightening metal frame, and prays to anyone who will listen, that the gate will open for them! Thankfully, everyone on our tour made it through, and we headed back to Kyiv.
On reflection, the tour could not have been improved. I have seen that some tours offer the opportunity to climb to the tops of buildings to give another view of the town. However, I felt that the views we were given were far more interesting. It is quite incomprehensible to me that whole towns can be reclaimed by nature, but here, I was able to see the beauty in the juxtaposition, and it was well worth the early start and long day to do so.