I did visit Chernobyl – and it was truly worth it
“Dear Claudia, we’d like to invite you to visit Chernobyl.” It was with these words, and a few more details, that David – one of the founders of Planet Chernobyl – invited me to go on a short trip to Ukraine to visit Kiev, and (well, obviously) Chernobyl.
I stared at the screen blankly for a few seconds. A series of questions came to my mind.
“Is this a joke?” was the first thing I wondered. Because seriously, how would anybody even think of ever visiting Chernobyl?
More questions followed.
“Is it actually even possible to visit Chernobyl? Is it safe?”
I know, they sound like stupid questions – if someone was suggesting, it was evidently possible to go on a tour of Chernobyl. But you see, I have a very clear memory of what happened in Chernobyl. On the early hours of 26 April 1986 reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced an unexpected surge of power, that caused a series of explosions and a fire in the core of the reactor, with the result that a large cloud of highly radioactive particles spread in the atmosphere and was blown across Europe.
I was not even 11 years old. Yet, I have a very clear recollection of what happened. On that exact day, I was on a school trip to the North of Sardinia. I remember the face of my worried teacher who said that a serious accident happened in Ukraine – which back then was still part of the USSR. I only vaguely knew where that was.
To find out more about Sardinia, read my post “Why I toured Sardinia on a tuc tuc.”
I remember the panic that followed. I remember how my parents would not let me go play outside, even if it was spring, and how really none of my friends was allowed to go. Parents feared the radioactive cloud and its deathly effects. TV news recommended to avoid consumption of a series of things, as they would be potentially toxic. I remember lettuce as being one of them, and as I was just a child who didn’t particularly enjoy eating salad, I wasn’t particularly bothered by that.
With such clear memories of the events of Chernobyl, it’s easy to see why the idea to visit Chernobyl had never even crossed my mind. But I admit that David’s email made me curious: perhaps it would really be possible to visit Chernobyl today.
A quick google search confirmed what I already imagined: tours of Chernobyl today are actually offered, and it is safe to visit Chernobyl even after only 31 years from the disaster (and although research states that the area will be radiation free in 20000 years). It goes without saying that the next minute I replied to David and said that yes, I was interested and I’d be going.
That’s how I found myself in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine,, in the middle of winter, when it was – 15 degrees centigrades (which is cold beyond belief for someone used to the mild winters of Sardinia, the same winters that I usually escape to travel to hot countries like Panama) and everything was covered in snow. And Kiev was nice – but, needless to say, the real highlight of the trip was the tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and Prypiat tour.
To read more about Panama, check my post “Just a few things to do in Panama.”
A bit of information about Chernobyl
I am not sure I will be able to put into words what it meant to visit Chernobyl. What I can do before I attempt to explain that, is giving some background information about it.
Chernobyl Power Plant is located at about 130 km north of Kiev, close to the border with Belarus. There were four nuclear reactors in the power station, two of which where still under construction at the time of the disaster. The power station is located at 18 km north of Chernobyl, which (I admit to not knowing this) is a really ancient town, funded over 1000 years ago and famous for being a center of Hasidic Judaism in the 19th century.
In April 1986, Chernobyl counted around 20000 inhabitants. It was not the largest town of the area. That was Prypiat, which was funded in the 1970s to accommodate people who worked in the power station, and which at the time of the disaster counted 50000 people. Prypiat – an avant-guard model of Soviet town with lots of parks, was the closest city to the power plant, at about 5 km away.
36 hours after the disaster, the Soviets enacted the 10-kilometers zone which meant that the all people and their animals living in Prypiat were evacuated. It is said that the delay in the evacuation was due to the favorable wind direction, which meant that it was actually safer to wait rather than evacuate. However, this may well be what was said in order to justify the delay in the evacuation.
Subsequently, the exclusion zone was extended to a radius of 30 kilometers, which meant that a further 68000 people were evacuated from the area, including from Chernobyl itself.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is actually much bigger than I had ever imagined: 2600 square kilometers, an area that is actually larger than Luxembourg. Hardly anybody lives in Chernobyl today. A few years after the disaster, 3000 people returned to the area. Nowadays, only 100 of those 3000 that returned are still alive, and other than these people, the only ones around are those who work at Chernobyl Power Plant, which is currently under decommissioning and scheduled to end in 2065.
Against all odds wildlife is still present and actually thriving in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: wild horses, bears, dears, foxes, lynxes and wolves. There’s even many stray dogs and a few cats – apparently (well) fed by the people who work in the exclusion zone. They were friendly enough to follow the group of tourists around during the visit. It somehow left me hopeful that life will come back here, too.
My visit to Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Apparently I am not the first blogger who’s made it to Chernobyl. I should have imagined that, but you know – as I had never thought to visit Chernobyl, I had never really made the effort to search for tours in the region. Anyways – this is to say that tours of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have been offered for a few years now, and they are becoming increasingly popular.
I know that independent travelers will cringe at the idea of having to take a guided tour – but remember that old post of mine where I state that guided tours are a must in order to visit certain places which are otherwise not accessible? Well, this is one of those cases: Chernobyl today can only be seen as part of a tour group.
Read more about guided tours on my post “Ten reasons to take a guided tour at least once in life.”
The reason why only tour groups can visit Chernobyl is that it is necessary to follow some strict rules, for safety reasons: eating, drinking and touching anything in the area is strictly forbidden (for obvious reasons); it’s necessary to follow specific paths and some buildings are completely off limits – and only certified guides will be able to point which ones.
In order to enter the area, I had to go through several checkpoints. When leaving, I was checked for radiation and had my clothes or shoes appeared contaminated, I would have had to leave them behind. Throughout the visit, guides carried a geiger, which measures the levels of radioactivity. It was interesting to see how these varied dramatically even in the space of one or two meters.
Tours of Chernobyl usually start in Chernobyl itself. Chernobyl today is completely empty: empty apartment buildings with shut windows; empty shuttered shops; what appears to be a school or a library, and on the other side a statue representing a winged angel.
There’s a yard where decontaminating vehicles have been abandoned – their bright colors at odds with the blinding whiteness of the snow; and a monument built in memory of the firefighters who helped to put out the fire of the nuclear plant and died of acute radiation sickness a few days after the disaster.
One of the most incredible sights was that of the DUGA. This is an enormous radar (of which apparently nobody knew: only in 2013, when it was opened to the public, people learned about it) that the Soviets used to detect potential missiles coming from the US airspace. It’s 500 meters long, 90 meters high, and I could hardly catch it on camera. It’s rumored that it was in order to provide power to such a massive radar that the Chernobyl Power Plant was built.
The DUGA has been nicknamed “the Russian Woodpecker” because of the constant tapping noise it made. When I visited, it stood there, enormous and silent – an eerie sight that left me seriously speechless.
The Kopachi Kindergarten was another interesting sight. It is one of the few accessible buildings. The village – which was 7 km away from Reactor 4, was so badly affected by the radiation that it was completely buried. The kindergarten is one of the very few buildings that are a testimony of its existence.
I am not sure what I saw was real or staged for visitors. Either way, I felt like I was walking through a horror themed park. It looked like it had been abandoned in a rush: there were old dolls, books and other toys scattered everywhere; the small bed frames of the dormitories left to rust; broken windows and glass everywhere.
The tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone continued to Reactor 4. This could be seen from a distance. A huge concrete structure similar to an arch was built around the reactor to prevent radiation from escaping. Apparently, the material inside is so radioactive and toxic that it can’t be removed and that’s why a structure was built around it. The entire area is currently under decommissioning – there’s still people who work there. It is not possible to take pictures of the area (besides the arch).
Prypiat was the last stop for the day, and it was my favorite part of the entire tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Prypiat is the perfect symbol of a life that could have been, but never was. It is such a reminder of the damage man can cause – to nature, to other human beings, and to life in general – for the sake of power and control.
Prypiat used to be a happy city, as the old pictures showed: its young inhabitants (the average age was just 26) walking along the boulevards; shops; schools; beautiful homes; stadiums; a park; playgrounds and swimming pools. To celebrate the happiness, an amusement part was built: bumper cars, a ferris wheel, a shooting range. It was meant to be inaugurated on 1 May 1986.
Life in Prypiat stopped on that sad day of April 1986, when the city was completely evacuated. Nowadays, the ferris wheel is a sad reminder of a happiness that was never fully achieved. Nature is claiming back the city – though as it was covered in snow, this wasn’t nearly as visible as it would be during the spring and summer months.
Prypiat is now completely dead. The silence is deafening. There was nobody around, except for the people in my guided tour and the odd dog who followed usa round. On the main square, the Hotel Polissa – once the best hotel in the city – stands next to the Palace of Culture, where there used to be a boxing ring, a gymnasium, a cinema and a swimming pool.
On the other side of the square, standing alone in one corner, there’s a phone booth: who was the last person to call from there? Who was he or she calling? What were they saying to each other?
Needless to say, my question – and many others I didn’t really ask out loud – were left unanswered.
Practical tips to visit Chernobyl
The first and obvious question people ask when they hear about tours of Chernobyl is whether it is safe to visit. The short answer is yes. Guides during the tour explained us that the level of radiation people are exposed to during a day tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is the same as that of a medium haul flight. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to what the guides say – ie not touching anything (first and foremost the soil, but even not throwing snow balls), not eating anything, no sitting on the ground, wearing closed shoes, etc.
I visited Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on 11 February 2017 – the temperatures were freezing. I was glad I had brought my ski pants and jacket and that extra pair of gloves. The guides kept saying that it was not as cold as it had been during the previous days. Anyways, it was cold enough for me. There were 30 centimeters of snow and more on the ground. That gave the whole place a surreal aura – especially to someone like me, who hadn’t seen that amount of snow in .
Now, I know most people would think I was crazy to go when it was so cold and would opt to go when the temperatures are milder. But other than me actually enjoying the snow, there’s also another reason why I think it is better to go in the winter: radiation is carried by particles like dust and soil. Snow acts as a blanket, and makes sure that these particles don’t fly around. On a spring or summer day, a little bit of wind may cause the radiation levels to triple.
As I have already said, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone can only be visited on guided tours. I visited with Planet Chernobyl, a French tour operator that organizes weekend packages with direct Ukraine International Airlines flights from Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, London and Geneva. The packages cost around €690 per person and include the flights to Kiev, transfers to and from the airport, and 2 OR 3 nights accommodation (depending on the time of the flight) in a lovely four-star hotel in the capital. I stayed at the Radisson Blue and it was fantastic: a very good room, great location, a fabulous breakfast buffet.
There usually also is a guided tour of Kiev included, which is a real bonus as the city is packed with interesting sights: churches, touching monuments (such as those dedicated to the famine and the Ukrainian genocide), street art and much more. I particularly loved observing people fishing in the frozen Dnepr river.
Foodies are bound to have a great time in Kiev. I ate at Ostanya Barykada, which is a secret restaurant that can be entered through a gift shop in an underground shopping mall. We even needed a password to get in. Unfortunately, I can’t remember! What I do remember is that the place looked incredibly quirky: the name (which translated means “the last barricade”) is a reminder of the struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. When I visited, there was a live band playing some fine jazzy tunes. Oh and the food was simply delicious. I had the traditional chicken Kiev and a mouthwatering dessert of apple tart, meringue, and home-made ice-cream.
Another fantastic restaurant is Shoti, which however focuses on Georgian cuisine. I tried the Georgian style ravioli and they were so full of flavor!
Why I recommend visiting Chernobyl
When I shared the pictures of my trip to Chernobyl to some family and friends, some of the comments I received were of the sort: “It doesn’t exactly look like a merry place;” or “that would not be a fun trip.” They were right, in a way. A tour of Chernobyl isn’t exactly a lighthearted kind of experience, and it leaves visitors with lots of questions and doubts. I wasn’t sad though – I didn’t feel the same kind of sadness or anger I felt when I visited the War Remnants Museum of Saigon, in Vietnam.
In any case, I don’t think that we only ought to travel to have a good time. Traveling is also an incredible eye opener: it is a way to learn more about cultures and histories that are different from ours. It gives us the possibility to know what humans are capable of, in their constant struggle for supremacy.
Chernobyl is just that: a strong reminder that disasters can happen that may affect the entire world, and that we should strive to make this world a better place for all.
Yes, I am glad I had a chance to visit Chernobyl, and I think it is really worth going.
Legal Disclaimer: This article is written in partnership with Planet Chernobyl, of whom I was a guest. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.