When Chernobyl disaster happened I was almost 2 years old and going through a phase of eating sand (because everyone does that at some point). This story is still going as kind of a joke in my family.
But even if Chernobyl disaster took place when I was already born I’ve never been really interested in it. Yes, it’s been part of my life since I remember (I mean, those jokes about two heads or people who were born in 1986) but I’ve never really paid all that much attention to the event. Which is sort of weird as I’m always fascinated in a way with all kinds of accidents and disasters (“Air Crash Investigation” are among my favorite tv shows!).
Table of contents
- 1 My concerns before visiting Chernobyl
- 2 Getting to the Exclusion Zone
- 3 First stop in the abandoned village
- 4 Town of Chernobyl and impressive Duga radar
- 5 Kopachi kindergarten – probably the most pictured place during Chernobyl tour
- 6 Facing the iconic Chernobyl power plant
- 7 My highlight of Chernobyl tour – Pripyat ghost town
- 8 My thoughts after Chernobyl tour
- 9 Is it worth to visit Chernobyl?
- 10 Is it safe to go to Chernobyl?
- 11 Chernobyl tour – practical information
My concerns before visiting Chernobyl
By a total coincidence it turned out that some of my friends are going for the long weekend to Kiev at the same time as me. They asked if I want to go to Chernobyl tour – it was supposed to be the highlight of their time in Ukraine while I wasn’t all that much convinced.
I somehow felt it’s all staged and not real anymore – after all Chernobyl tours are the most popular tourism activity in Ukraine and it had to have some impact on the place! Surely that in over 30 years a lot has changed in the zone, to please adventurous tourists who want to experience this famous place.
I had some doubts if I want to be part of the show but I’ve decided to go anyway. And I’m so glad I did as – to my great surprise – the Chernobyl tour from Kiev turned out to be my highlight too!
In the meantime we’ve decided to split and so together with Evi we went for the Chernobyl tour organized by Chernobyl Tour. It was suggested to me by my friend Julia from JCTravel and since she runs a travel company with tours to Ukraine she knows the business.
I’m really glad I’ve listened to her as it turned out Chernobyl Tour is probably the best (and biggest) company that offers excursions to the Exclusion Zone. Comparing our experience with our friends who went with another company was like a day and night, they didn’t see half of the places we did (like the mandatory photo spot at the Pripyat city sign) and returned to Kiev some 3 hours earlier!
I think part of our luck was our amazing guide Natalia – she was so much fun! Witty, sarcastic and with a huge knowledge about Chernobyl, Pripyat, the disaster (or as she called it “the accident”) and the consequences. Thanks to her the day at the Chernobyl tour was unforgettable!
Getting to the Exclusion Zone
It was a long day with an early start. The Chernobyl tour departs at 8 in the morning but we were supposed to be earlier at the meeting point to do all the bureaucracy (checking the documents etc). When registering for the tour you’re required to give the passport information so the company can register you as the visitor in the exclusion zone.
As the day goes by the documents were checked at the checkpoints, there was no way to officially enter the area without the permission. Still some people, so-called “stalkers”, enter the zone illegally, sneaking in in the middle of the night, occupy for days abandoned houses or flats and live off the goods that grow in the area. Pretty risky, I would say…
We were lucky as our bus was among the first ones to arrive at the checkpoint in Dytiatky. That’s where the 30kms Exclusion Zone begins and where the passports are controlled with the lists provided by tour operators beforehand.
Now the “serious” part of the Chernobyl tour begins. We are supposed to wear long pants, long sleeves and covered shoes (mind you, it’s a rather hot August day), we are not allowed to eat anything outside the bus and it’s forbidden to pick or even touch anything – all of those for safety reason.
First stop in the abandoned village
As we are ahead of schedule we can stop for a quick stroll around a village Zalyssia. That’s when the surreal part of the tour has started for me.
When leaving the bus all I could see around were trees and bushes, lots of those. But as soon as I entered a small path into the forest I could notice here and there ruins of the buildings that only 30 years ago were a living place.
Besides the regular houses there was also a doctor’s office or a supermarket – they were a bit staged (because obviously the books haven’t remained opened and the medications or teddy bear haven’t sat still in the same position for over 30 years) but that’s what I was expecting in a way. My inner explorer who adores exploring abandoned places was ready to play along. Zalyssia was just a foretaste of the rest of the Chernobyl tour and with each passing minute I was more and more excited!
Town of Chernobyl and impressive Duga radar
We had to stop for a quick paper work in the town of Chernobyl with probably the last remaining Lenin statue you can find in Ukraine.
I was wondering how come it was “the Chernobyl disaster” while the town of Pripyat was the biggest victim here. Before I could ask Natalia explained it: Chernobyl itself is an old town, dating back to 11th century while Pripyat was founded only to serve the power plant (that was there first, at least in the plans, hence it got the name after the closest town which was Chernobyl then).
Before the disaster Chernobyl must have been a beautiful town with several holy temples (Orthodox and Catholic churches or even the synagogue) and old wooden houses that remnants of still peek through the overgrown bushes.
After few more minutes we turn left from the main road, pass the Soviet bus stop with the teddy bear on it (as a cover-up) and drive deeper into the forest. That’s where the famous Duga radar is located. Officially the area was home to the children camp (hence the fake bus stop), that’s also how it was marked on the maps.
Duga was one of two such over-the-horizon radars that were part of Soviet anti-ballistic missile early-warning network (the second one was located in Eastern Siberia). It was operating from 1976 till 1989 (however it was more or less closed after the Chernobyl disaster as the radiation messed it up). Duga was more known under its nicknames: Eye of Moscow or Russian Woodpecker.
When I saw pictures of the radar it looked pretty much random but in reality it makes a huge impression. You walk through the forest and suddenly you’re standing right in front of the massive steel structure. And I mean really massive, so enormous you barely can see the end of it!
I was in awe when I got there, with the sun shining through the layers of steel it was simply a beautiful sight and the industrial geek in me couldn’t be any happier. I don’t know how come I could have underestimated this place!
That was also when the Geiger counter started beeping for the first time – the allowed amount of radiation in Ukraine is 0,30 µSv/h and here it was barely exceeded to 0,32.
Kopachi kindergarten – probably the most pictured place during Chernobyl tour
Of all the pictures from Chernobyl tour I’ve seen online the most creepy ones were from the kindergarten in Kopachi. The village is in a very close proximity to the power plant and when the disaster happened it was highly contaminated therefore evacuated shortly. Today only the kindergarten and one more building remain in the place, the rest of the village’s structure was destroyed.
This was probably the most staged place I’ve seen during my Chernobyl tour, but at the same time I took so many pictures and enjoyed it in a way. The remnants of the kindergarten look like straight out of the horror movie. Everything was covered in dust and decaying, the floor was creaking under the heavy steps of tourists, the toys were carefully strewn around on the rusted beds, old yellowed books were almost falling from the cockeyed shelves.
If I was there alone I’d definitely freak out! But with so many people around (there was one more group visiting kindergarten at the same time) you sometimes had to be very sneaky to take a good picture (the same as thousands of other people already have) and the whole creepy kindergarten experience was actually limited to taking pictures mostly.
You spend only a short period of time in and around the kindergarten as the radiation is pretty high here. Close to the ground it was even up to 9 µSv/h. That’s when I fully realized how surreal the whole disaster was.
I read about that before and I could experience the same thing – everyone kept talking about the killing impact of radiation but many people couldn’t fully realize that as you simply can’t see the danger, it’s invisible and therefore doesn’t feel real. I can clearly see why people didn’t understand why they need to immediately leave their houses and all the belongings, I’d probably be confused too as you can’t really see the most killing force you need to escape from.
Facing the iconic Chernobyl power plant
Shortly after leaving Kopachi we could see the power plant for the first time. I was lucky to sit in front of the bus and so I could admire it in the whole grandness. It looked enormous and the new sarcophagus (that has been on only since November 2016) definitely added up to the overall overwhelming image of the place – after all it’s the biggest structure of this kind in the world!
I’ve seen few power plants before and this didn’t look any different, you’d never think it caused such a huge tragedy that has the impact on so many lives. The Chernobyl power plant consists of four reactors (there were supposed to be 6 of them which would make it the biggest power plant in the world but after the accident two remaining reactors were never finished) and it has been still working for couple of years after the disaster – the last reactor (no. 3) was shut down in December 2000 after the pressure from Western countries. But there are still numerous workers in the power plant, taking care of it even now.
We had our lunch break in the worker’s canteen and I must say I felt slightly like an intruder, invading their break from work (however, with so many tourists visiting Chernobyl they are probably used to it by now).
My highlight of Chernobyl tour – Pripyat ghost town
Second part of the day was my (and probably everyone else’s) absolute highlight – a visit in the abandoned town of Pripyat! When we stopped for the mandatory picture next to the town’s sight it felt kind of surreal – this is probably the most common image of the whole Chernobyl tour yet I’m standing there myself, right in front of it. Still then I had no idea my mind is about to explode very soon from the whole Pripyat experience!
I do love abandoned spaces and I explore them whenever I can but in most cases I don’t know the back story of the place or I can’t compare how it used to look like before. In Pripyat it was totally different. Not only the town has been abandoned for over 30 years but we got so much information from Natalia about the life in Pripyat (including pictures of the city before the disaster) – it was a whole new experience to visit the place like this.
I was also checking Pripyat’s map on maps.me app on my phone and it was even more surreal as everything was marked there: blocks, schools, swimming pool or the stadium. It just looked like a regular city with all the is features. Looking at the map really played tricks with my head as it just felt weird – all I could see around were just trees and bushes. Only when you looked closer you could sometimes see shapes of blocks or other buildings hidden in this almost jungle.
What used to look like a busy street was now jut a narrow path through the forest. I really couldn’t believe when I saw the pictures and then looked around – this surely couldn’t be the same place, 30 years can’t make such a big difference and nature can’t be that powerful, or can it?
We spent around 2 hours in Pripyat, peeked around here and there and even visited some places we technically weren’t supposed to. We’ve seen regular blocks of flats, those that you can find in every city in Eastern Europe (I live in one in Warsaw too), public buildings, shops, restaurants, the stadium, community center, hotel and of course the most iconic landmark of Pripyat – the amusement park with the ferries wheel that officially never started running (it was supposed to open on the 1st of May 1986 but the disaster happened just few days before, some sources say the amusement park was opened earlier, just after the disaster to distract people from what was happening in the power plant).
Everything was rusty and neglected and it felt really creepy to wander around but at the same time I enjoyed it to the fullest! The time we have spend in Pripyat passed by in the blink of an eye yet there were still so many places I’d love to see in the town: the hospital, the school (regular one and the music one), the cinema, even more blocks…
But before I even realize we were already back in the bus to Kiev, on the way we’ve only stopped briefly to see the exhibition of the robots that helped to clean the place after the disaster and the monument of the firefighters in Chernobyl – they were the first people who had to deal with the disaster – their sacrifice cost them lives. Two checkpoints later we left the zone and headed towards Kiev.
My thoughts after Chernobyl tour
After visiting the Exclusion Zone I was (and still am) torn by emotions. On one hand the place and its lush vegetation was beautiful but one the other it was home to one of the biggest disasters in the history.
Even if the official sources say only about 49 deaths the number of victims is so much bigger: think about all the people who had to suffer the acute radiation syndrome or other health issues, who had to leave their houses and all the belongings behind and move away from the area (the brand new town – Slavutych – had to be built for them).
The place that is now a major playground for tourists (including me) is the place of tragedy for thousands of people. Many of the visitors seem to forget about it and treat the whole Chernobyl tour as a major tourist attraction, nothing more.
Is it worth to visit Chernobyl?
If you ask me if it’s worth visiting Chernobyl my answer is a firm yes. Even if the place is staged in so many ways to please tourists and to be a great scenery for a perfect creepy Instagram picture, even if it’s slightly overrun by tourists (especially in the summer months, there were 15 or so tours on the day I visited) I still think it’s worth going there and see the place yourself – no stories, pictures or videos can make the justice to the Exclusion Zone.
I had no real interest in going there but when I did I enjoyed every bit of it. It was so interesting to see the iconic place known from the news and so many stories. It was also everything I enjoy: abandoned places, industrial sights, Soviet architecture and some street art.
Even if I felt kind of surreal for the whole day, like in some movie or something, I still am really glad I went!
Is it safe to go to Chernobyl?
Many people also have safety concerns before visiting Chernobyl. To be honest I didn’t. I always think that if something is not safe it would be forbidden altogether.
We had Geiger counters with us and there were few situation when they started beeping when they went way above the allowed limit (which is 0,30 µSv/h in Ukraine) but with the amount of time we’ve spent in the Exclusion Zone it was still not too dangerous.
At the end of the day Natalia checked the radiation level we got and it was equal to spending 1,5 hour flying. We are more exposed to the radiation in our regular activities than on a Chernobyl tour, we are just not fully aware of that (at least I wasn’t!).
Now, two months after the trip, I still feel fine and I haven’t seen any post-Chernobyl symptoms.
Chernobyl tour – practical information
When it comes to the practical side of the Chernobyl tour the most important thing to know is that you can’t travel independently there (unless you’re one of the stalkers and know people who can get you in but that’s a rather risky procedure too).
There are plenty of companies offering Chernobyl tours, I can wholeheartedly recommend Chernobyl Tour that I went with (especially knowing how average was the tour my friends went to)! There is literally nothing bad I can say about the company and the tour itself, it was all so good but the big part of that praise goes to Natalia, our amazing tour guide. She really could take care of the group and keep us together (which wasn’t so easy since there were around 30 people with me on the tour) and even at the time of the small crisis when our bus broke down on the way back to Kiev she very swiftly dealt with it and found places for us in another buses coming.
The company offers both one day and multiday tours as well as can organize private tours. The prices start at 89USD for one day tour (like the one I went for) but if you’d like to have a Geiger counter and a lunch at the canteen you need to pay extra – (respectively 10USD and 5USD). You need to book the tour 4 days in advance at the latest as the company needs some time for the paperwork – the Exclusion Zone is a strictly restricted area and only registered tourists can enter it.
Ever since my Chernobyl tour I’ve been thinking of returning there as I still feel I have an unfinished business with Chernobyl and especially understanding the whole place and its history. Hopefully I will be able to go back there soon!
If you think of visiting Ukraine or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it:
- Is it safe to travel to Ukraine?
- 5 reasons to visit Odessa, Ukraine
- Stunning Chernivtsi – my best discovery in Ukraine
- and many more!
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Disclaimer: my trip to the Exclusion Zone was in partnership with Chernobyl Tour however, as always, all opinions are 100% mine and I’m already plotting my next trip there!
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