BoldTraveller’s first guest blog post! Ross and I first met virtually a few years ago when he was using my Japan blog posts to help plan his own trip. We have since decided that we are travel twins, often picking the same places around the world to travel to. He claims that I copy him but he clearly copies me as I usually visit first. One place that he has visited that I’m unlikely to go is Chernobyl. Not because it doesn’t sound interesting (read on – it does!) or that it’s a little radioactive, but because there’s no direct flight from Edinburgh to Kyiv so it would be a long journey for a short trip. So, I asked Ross to write a guest blog post covering his trip to Chernobyl! Instagrammers can find Ross munching his way around the world at @tuckintotravel.
A guide to visiting the Exclusion Zone
In May 2018, my girlfriend and I were driving from Barstow, California to Kingman, Arizona on Route 66. It’s a pretty boring part of the road but it gave us the chance to listen to a podcast which captured our attention and inspired where we were going to travel to the following year. The podcast in question was The Podcast Of Doom’s episode about the worst nuclear disaster in history caused when Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant exploded and released radioactive materials into the night sky.
Fast forward to May 2019 when we arrived in Kyiv to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Around this time the mini-series ‘Chernobyl’ was released on HBO (US) and Sky Atlantic (UK) which is a mostly accurate recreation of the disaster with a few things altered for dramatic purposes. The mini-series’ popularity has resulted in a huge rise in tourism to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (a 30-40% increase in 2019 v 2018). This has prompted the Ukrainian Government to explore the prospect of making it an official tourist attraction with safe routes, waterways and checkpoints – a move which would end corruption, improve governance and eradicate corruption. Currently there is no law authorising tourism within the Zone, so bribes are common.
Right. So, I can visit Chernobyl then?
Yes but as a visitor, not a tourist! That’s just a label though and for all intents and purposes, you are a tourist. You must be over 18 years old and are only able to visit with an authorised tour company or guide – who applies for a permit on your behalf at least 72 hours in advance. If you can, I would recommend booking your seat as far in advance as you can to improve your chances of securing a permit in time. They are, after all, extremely popular now.
We used SoloEast who were excellent from booking to arriving back in Kyiv after the tour. Obviously do your own research before booking but I would recommend their one-day tour into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The Ukrainian entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is about 70 miles north of Kyiv. I say the Ukrainian entrance because the country now known as Belarus (formally Belorussia) also houses part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – in fact about 60% of the contamination fell over Belarus. Until very recently, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Belarus had been completed closed to visitors and is still in a trial stage for tourism.
The Exclusion Zone is divided into two main parts – the 30km zone and the 10km zone. Both are references to their radius from Reactor 4 and were designated in the days after the explosion.
Is it safe?
To put it simply, yes. Your guide is there for your safety as much as for information so listen to them, follow their instructions, and you should be just fine. The amount of radiation you’re likely be exposed to is less than what you’ll be exposed to on your flight over to Ukraine and is comparable to the Kyiv city centre except for a few “hot spots”. These hot spots are just spikes in the radiation level but you are only exposed to them for short periods of time so they shouldn’t have any effect on you.
To be honest, radiation isn’t the big issue for visitors to the Exclusion Zone these days. It is more the buildings and structures which have deteriorated over time and been stripped of their metal and sold on for scrap. For these reasons, you won’t be allowed to enter most of the buildings or structures. Again, pay attention to your guide and they’ll keep you safe.
Personal radiation dosimeters are issued by the authorities to anyone entering the Exclusion Zone and are mandatory to wear. They measure the radiation that individuals are exposed to – there’s no display on them so you can’t see the figures, but most tour companies will rent out Geiger counters, which measure the radiation throughout the day.
When leaving the Exclusion Zone, there are two radiation checkpoints that everyone needs to go through before being permitted to leave. At each of these checkpoints, visitors step onto a Body Radiation Detector and place their hands onto two side panels – one on each side. The Detector checks the soles of your shoes, palms of your hands and clothing to ensure that you aren’t leaving with any radioactive particles on you. If you’re all good, the gate will open and you are free to go. Our guide said that that gate has never failed to open for any of their tours so definitely nothing to worry about.
It should also be noted that everyone entering the Exclusion Zone needs to wear long trousers, long sleeves and closed shoes (i.e. – no open toes).
What can I expect to see?
That really depends on the company you choose and the tour you book. I am going to talk about our one-day trip with SoloEast in May 2019.
We were collected by minibus at 8am in central Kyiv and driven two hours to the Dytyatky checkpoint (the 30km checkpoint). En-route we watched various documentaries about Chernobyl and were given all the rules and lowdown for the day. Upon arrival, we had to get off the bus, show our passports and enter through a turnstile. It was here that we were issued with our personal radiation dosimeters and got our first glance at the gift shops. Yes, there are two Chernobyl gift shops on opposite sides of the road where you can purchase typical memorabilia such as t-shirts, magnets, keyrings etc.
We were lucky with our timing as when we were leaving the checkpoint, another 10 or so buses had just arrived and a bit of a queue had formed. It should be noted that we didn’t see any of these other tour groups for the rest of the day. The tour was well coordinated so that we had each of the stops to our group, which definitely added to the experience.
Our first actual stops of the day were the villages of Cherevach and Zalissya before we moved onto Chernobyl town. Chernobyl is actually a city so I’m not sure why it gets called a town – if you know, drop the answer in the comments below. The town/city is about 9 miles south of the nuclear power plant and is where we had lunch (included in the price). We saw the Wormwood Star memorial, St. Elijah Church (an operating Orthodox Christian church) and then had 15 minutes to explore. 15 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time and it’s not, but the guides don’t want people wandering too far or getting lost. Lunch was a ‘take it or leave it’ affair. I think I was served pork, potatoes and salad. It could have been any meat. There was a roll as well but it was sweet so I don’t know if that was dessert? The vegetarian alternative was the same minus the (maybe) pork. Vegan? Gluten free? Er, bring your own.
The afternoon kicked off with a stop in the village of Kopachi, where we visited an abandoned kindergarten before driving towards the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant or to give it its proper name, the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant. We got a panoramic view of Reactors 3,4 and the uncompleted 5 and 6 then continued on to get a closer view of Reactor 4. Or rather the dome around it.
300 yards is all that stood between us and Reactor 4. Well, 300 yards, a high security perimeter and the New Safe Confinement (NSC). What’s the NSC, I hear you ask? As part of the clean-up of the accident, reactor 4 had a massive steel and concrete shell constructed around it to limit and contain the radioactive contamination to the environment. This ‘sarcophagus’ was poorly built and was eventually replaced by the NSC in 2019 at a cost of £2 billion. The NSC is the largest moveable land-based structure ever built and is estimated to last for the next 100 years. In that time, workers will dismantle the old sarcophagus which currently lives inside the NSC, and will secure the reactor core while removing tons of radioactive material.
After our close encounter with Reactor 4, it was off to Pripyat via The Red Forest. The Red Forest got its name after the trees died and turned red from their exposure to high levels of radiation following the accident. The forest was bulldozed and buried post-explosion but remains one of the most contaminated areas in the world today – most of the radioactivity is contained within the soil. For obvious reasons, we didn’t get out of the bus here but we did spend a few minutes on the edge of the Red Forest by the Pripyat sign. Our guide used a Geiger counter to show us the difference in radiation levels between a relatively “normal” patch of grass compared to a highly contaminated area.
Pripyat was the city built to accommodate the workers of the Chernobyl Power Plant and their families. Construction started at the same time as the Power Plant in the 70s and had a population of 50,000 before the disaster. Pripyat was the model city for the future of the Soviet Union – it had 15 kindergartens and schools, a hospital, over 50 stores, cafes and restaurants, 10 gyms, multiple swimming pools and sports stadiums. That all changed on 26th April 1986 and it is now a crumbling ghost city with only nature and wildlife inhibiting it.
On the tour we got to see the main square of Pripyat, the Palace Of Culture, the local hotel and supermarket before walking over to the theme park which was due to open on 1st May 1986. Many of the iconic images of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are from the theme park – you are likely to have seen the ferris wheel before. As most of the buildings are in a state of disrepair, they are no go areas for safety reasons but we did get to look inside one of the indoor swimming pools. I’ve read so many reviews where other visitors got to venture into various other buildings so I guess it depends on your guide as to what you get to see. I think if you pay for a private tour you are more likely to be taken to the “off-limits” places as the guide only has to worry about you and not a group of people.
The final stop of the day was to Duga 3 also known as Chernobyl 2 or The Russian Woodpecker. The Soviet missile detection system was supposed to be a secret project and so was constructed in the middle of the woods, miles away from anything. When you build something that is 150 metres high by 700 meters in length then it’s probably not going to stay a secret for long. To try and maintain its super secret identity, Duga 3 was marked on Soviet maps as a children’s camp. That’ll fool their enemies…
We returned back to Kyiv at about 6.30pm and were dropped off more or less where we were picked up in the morning. A good 8 ½ hour day – although it could be longer depending on traffic so don’t make plans for before 8pm I’d say. There’s a couple of short videos shown on the bus on the way home but I used it as an opportunity to take a nap.
Are there any two headed people?
People do live and work within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone but they only have one head – sorry to disappoint. It is actually illegal to live within the Exclusion Zone but about 150 people call it home while many more have a daily commute into the city of Chernobyl where there are administration buildings, a couple of general stores and the hotel.
In the days that followed the explosion, the cities and towns in the surrounding area were evacuated and everyone was instructed to pack enough for 2-3 days. Most of them never returned and had to leave their lives and belonging behind.
The people who were evacuated were initially housed in settlements across the Kyiv Oblast province as it had been anticipated that they would be back home within the week. Two and half years later and the town of Slavutych was completed to accommodate the families who were forced from Pripyat. Slavutych is located about 50 miles east of Chernobyl and was the last city built by the Soviets before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Those who did return to their homes (estimated to be about 1,200 people in 1986) in the 30km Exclusion Zone – no one lives within the 10km zone – were generally older and struggled to settle in their new surroundings – their quiet village life was all they knew. Those with children had little choice but to make new lives elsewhere as there was no education available in the Exclusion Zone: all kindergartens and schools were abandoned.
The resettlers are not alone though with plenty of wildlife roaming free – dogs, wolves, hares and bears. No matter where you walk on your tour, you are likely to be greeted by dogs. When people evacuated the Exclusion Zone, they had to leave their pets behind. Despite a Government cull, the dogs survived, bred and are now being cared for by US non-profit organisation Clean Futures Fund (CFF).
It’s probably advisable not to get too close to the dogs as despite them being friendly, they are covered in fleas. You are welcome to bring dog biscuits with you to feed them and we saw some people on the tour with us share their lunch with the dogs.
How much does it cost?
Again, this depends on the tour and the company that you choose. Our one-day group tour with SoloEast cost £65 per person and included our pass into the Exclusion Zone, the transport and guide for the day and also lunch in the Chernobyl hotel.
There was 18 people on our mini bus to give you an idea of the size of group that you are likely to be part of should you choose to go with SoloEast.
There is the option of a two-day tour where you spend the night in the hotel in the city of Chernobyl. If you go with the two day tour, you also get to meet some of the resettlers that I spoke about above so if you have any questions that you want to ask them about living within the Exclusion Zone or the disaster itself then maybe this is the option for you.
You are able to take as many photos and videos as your heart desires and there is no additional charge for this – your guide will let you know if there are any areas that you can’t capture with the camera, e.g. – security checkpoints. If you wish to fly a drone in the Exclusion Zone then contact your tour company in advance as they need to apply for a special permit to allow this. If photography is your main motivation for visiting then you might want to consider a private tour (at an additional cost) where you can have input to the schedule and have extra time to get your shots.
When is the best time to visit?
Tours run all year round come rain, snow or shine but I’d suggest spring or autumn. Not only is the weather likely to be favourable but it is also off peak in terms of tourism so should be quieter. We visited in the middle of May and although it was overcast in the early morning, the sun came out and it was 25 degrees Celsius in the afternoon.
The minibuses that SoloEast use all have air conditioning so you will be comfortable while travelling but bear in mind that you have to cover up from neck to toe so it could be pretty hot walking around the Exclusion Zone in summer. One of the rules is that you aren’t allowed to drink outside of the minibus so again, that’s something you might want to take into consideration. You can leave belongings on the bus so you can layers and refreshments waiting on board for you.
Ukraine can experience harsh winters so it is likely to be in minus temperatures from December-February and snowfall is also a possibility. The shorter days mean less daylight which might mean that you aren’t seeing everything in optimal lighting.
And the most important question – are there any toilets?
If you need to empty your bladder constantly then don’t worry! The first stop of the day was about 30 minutes outside Kyiv at a service station. As well getting to use the facilities there, it’s also a good opportunity to stock up on snacks and drinks.
You then have to hold it in until you arrive at the 30km checkpoint where there is a toilet. All the checkpoints had basic bathroom facilities and also the hotel we stopped at for lunch. The longest we had without a relief break was the drive back to Kyiv so maybe 2 ½ hours due to the traffic.
NOTE: You might have noticed that I referred to the Ukrainian capital as Kyiv (pronounced Keev) in this blog. Kyiv is the English translation from the Ukrainian spelling whereas the more commonly used spelling of Kiev (pronounced Key-ev) is the English translation of the Russian spelling. There was a #kyivnotkiev campaign a few years ago to try and get the English language media and organisations to use the Ukrainian translation. I would suggest that anyone visiting the city uses Kyiv to avoid causing offence to any locals.