Caution! Radiation! Dark Tourism at Chernobyl

Today I was doing something that I was wholly unsure of. I was going to visit Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear power station that essentially went into meltdown and caused a huge nuclear explosion. The after effects of which are still felt now, and were felt for thousands of miles as winds blew radiation across Northern Europe.

This all happened in 1986 under Soviet rule in Ukraine but I was assured by various publications and tour sites online that it was now safe for humans to wander through, so I bit the proverbial bullet and went for it. I booked my tour online through Chernobyl-Tour, at first I was totally unsure if it was legit but you paid on the day and apart from handing over your passport it seemed pretty safe.

We met at 07:30am in Kiev, a motley crew of myself, an American family, a Spanish couple, a French guy and an Australian man. Lunch was to be included and we would make a quick stop to grab something for breakfast at a very well put together services on the way. All ready to go and passports checked we were informed there were two more travellers, and we would wait an extra ten minutes for them. At this point I just knew this couple would be trouble, they soon arrived around 11 minutes later, much to my consternation we hadn’t left them behind.

They then went into a big story about how one of them had left their passport at the hostel, to which they were told they wouldn’t be going on the tour without it. This began a whole rigmarole of leaving them behind, but waiting for them at the services while they took a taxi back to their hostel and then out to the services.

Anyway, we were soon on our merry way, making our hellos through gritted teeth at the new arrivals. The journey to the military checkpoint that required our passports and on to our first stop took around 3 hours, the route was scenic and we got a little background on what had happened and the itinerary for the day, we were also all given our own personal geiger counters and maps which was pretty cool and/or terrifying depending on your train of thought.

Once through the soviet era guard post – something that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Pierce Brosnan era James Bond film, we were officially in the Chernobyl area. The three headed deer and giant glowing wolves that I had imagined in my head failed to materialise, instead we stopped and took a quick look around a small village called Zalissya that had been completely abandoned. It was eerie walking through the woods with glimpses of derelict houses, we explored a few of them, only finding bits that no scavengers would take.

Next on the agenda was another quick stop at the first exclusion workers site, here people live and work around the whole Chernobyl area, testing the radiation levels and performing maintenance. We looked at some of the equipment that had been used through the years to aid in sealing the nuclear towers off and learnt that they mostly hadn’t worked. There was a really endearing statue of origami swans in dedication to people who lost their lives due to the reactor.

The next part of the tour was really cool, and complete KGB/Soviet stuff, we stopped at a gated off area which led to a huge radar antenna which was completely hidden from the West and it was only discovered once people started returning to work in the exclusion zone.

It would have been used to assist in launching ballistic missiles. I thought it was amazing and I could’ve wandered through the bunkers, under the radar and around the abandoned vehicles for ages. This was truly an experience unlike any other. Geiger counters gripped in our hands we closely monitored the radiation levels and found control rooms straight out of films and TV.

Unfortunately time was limited and our next stop was the creepiest yet, the village of Kopachi. In the aftermath of the fallout the government didn’t really know what to do, so in some areas of high radiation the houses were bulldozed and buried.

This only led to the radiation seeping into the ground and water table around the village, making it one of the highest radiation spots we visited. The only building left was the kindergarten, with empty beds left behind and various creepy toys lying around.

It was now time for lunch, and we joined the exclusion zone workers in their cafeteria to enjoy the same food that they eat. I forgot to take pictures of this and I’ve completely forgotten what we ate so it couldn’t have been too memorable. We ate and chatted about the day so far before we were bundled back into our little minibus to view the actual reactor or at least the sarcophagus that now covers it.

They actually discovered that the original containment barrier was leaking radioactive rain into the soil and thus into the environment. So a new containment device was built over this, which allows nuclear waste to be safely removed and the old sarcophagus to be dismantled.

The next part of the trip was really exciting as we visited the nuclear City of Pripyat, this place was built for the huge population of workers that the nuclear station required, reaching a population of nearly 50,000 at the time it was evacuated. It truly represents nature taking back control of something built by humans.

Covered in greenery and buildings slowly crumbling to the ground from rain and plants, it includes the sports stadium, the amusement park with the iconic ferris wheel, which was only ridden on once and the whole park was never opened to the public.

It was actually due to open 5 ays after the disaster. It also includes the azure swimming pool – one of the cleanest and safest places in the exclusion zone, we found out to our horror that it was still in use up to 1996 by the men and women brought in to deal with the crisis!

It was starting to get dark now as dusk fell, and our second to last stop was the police station which was definitely like something out of a horror film with it’s abandoned cells. Our last stop was on our way out and had to be illuminated by the bus….it was the memorial to ‘Those who saved the world’ the firefighters that died putting out the fire at the nuclear power plant and the people who cleaned up the area after the accident. It was a fitting way to end the trip, but the drama had just begun.

Remember the two English lads who had caused a commotion at the beginning of the journey? Well they had started to get bored about halfway through and ceased showing any interest in the surroundings or what the guide was saying. Through the whole trip the one thing that we had been warned not to do was pick up any kind of ‘souvenirs’ from the exclusion zone. So obviously as we went back through the checkpoint and were checked for radiation and decontaminated something as amiss.

Turned out a wrench was left on one of the seats on the bus. Now not to point fingers but it was definitely these two lads. They acted like butter wouldn’t melt at the time and luckily for us the army guys let us go without taking us through questioning to figure out who it was, this was what could have potentially happened. Once the wrench had been returned and we were on our way they soon started joking that it might have been them. It was just so needless and embarassing for everyone after such an incredible trip. As we disembarked the bus back in Kiev they offered me the chance of a beer with them, I politely declined by informing them I’d rather drink the cooling water of the nuclear reactor than have a beer with two arseholes.

I did however head to the pub I knew and had a beer, contemplating the day and what a crazy experience it was. The tour cost around 89 US dollars and it was worth every penny. I’d remenber this for the rest of my life. Bucket list moment? TICK.

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