Let’s get the logistics and other details out of the way first.
We travelled with Solo East Travel (the crowd that did the Top Gear special). A day trip can cost between €70 and €100. We met at 8am in Kiev and got home just before 8pm. Yeah, it’s not cheap but it’s a full day, guide, travel, meal etc. included. The earlier you book, the cheaper it is as they need to organise documentation to get you through the various check points in the Exclusion Zone. Also, it’s a once in a lifetime trip and trying to organise the documents on your own would be difficult to say the least. You need to bring your passport, a bottle of water and clothes you’re not overly attached to (I’ll get to that later!)
Visiting Chernobyl has been at the top of my bucket list for a long long time. I’ve always been interested in it but also I guess I felt like I had some sort of a connection with it from all the years of travelling to Belarus and seeing things that are directly related to it.
In all those years of travelling though, I could never justify to spend my time visiting the zone when my time with the children was so short. As a result, I was making it my mission to get there over the course of my EVS but I never could have imagined I’d get to go so early into my 12 months.
In week 3 of my EVS we were in Kiev for an On Arrival training camp. Most of the volunteers from the camp were staying on in Kiev for an extra couple of days so this was the perfect opportunity to go to Chernobyl. A group of five of us ended up travelling together.
I’ve spoken about my trip to a few people, and it really is difficult to find the words to describe the experience so I’ll write a little bit but I think the photos do the talking.
At 8:30am on March 23rd 2017 we left Kiev and began the 2-hour journey to Chernobyl. I was a 50/50 mixture of nerves and excitement… with a little sprinkling of exhaustion. Our guide Constantine and driver Pasha started us off with a little tour of Kiev and then put on some documentaries for the duration of the journey.
We arrived at the first checkpoint, Dityatki which is the entrance to the exclusion zone. We all had to get out of the minibus to show our passports and also to allow the Police to check the vehicle.
We carried on down a very straight, bleak road with forest towering over us on either side. I thought we were in the middle of nowhere, until our guide pointed out the houses, no more than 20 foot away. We were actually in a village! It was as if someone had just cast these little buildings in amongst the trees, there was no way this place could have been inhabited.
Zalissya was home to 2850 people 31 years ago. Now…
Below is the town hall (inside and out), a local house, the supermarket and the bank.
Zalissya is one of 186 uninhabited villages in the 2600 km2 area.
The town of Chernobyl is actually still quite an active town. A year after the disaster people were allowed to move back, but no children were allowed. 3,000 people moved back to the exclusion zone. Today there are only around 100 residents left. The town is busy with workers. 8,000 people work in the zone. Those that live near to the zone travel every day, others who live far away come and work in 15 day shifts.
For me, one of the most significant stops we took was to see the Fireman Memorial. It was erected outside the fire station long before people knew Chernobyl would attract tourists. It’s a beautifully powerful piece. It’s in memory of the first responders, the workers of the power plant and firemen who poured concrete on the radioactive core. The piece is extremely expressive, the pain on the men’s faces, the heat, one can’t imagine. The writing says “To those who saved the world”. This is not an overstatement. What these men did prevented a second explosion, one that would have killed 40-100 million people.
To those who saved the world
Some people believe that the disaster was prophesied. Chernobyl comes from the Ukrainian word for ‘woodworm’. In the centre of the town there is a statue of a “Trumpeting Angel”, it refers this passage in the Bible:
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. (Revelation 8:10-11)
Our tour guide Constantine told us that when he was younger he thought they had named the town Chernobyl after the event because Chernobyl comes from the Russian word for ‘black’. It wasn’t till he was older that he realised it had already had the name.
186 signs. 186 abandoned villages.
It was here, at the angel monument and beside these 186 signs that I learned a horrifying statistic. I had never heard definitive numbers because it’s impossible to say how many lives have been effected but one that will stick with me was 25,000.
25,000 liquidators had died by 1995. That’s less than 10 years later. These men were young and healthy before the disaster. They were in their 20’s and 30’s. They worked tirelessly in conditions that were killing them without protective gear. 25,000 families left without a son, brother, father, because of this disaster.
Other stops along the way:
The old military base with the famous Duga radar.
I was skeptical going into the Kindergarten as I heard people placed items certain ways for dramatic effect. They weren’t wrong but you could see the toys that were new and those that weren’t. Personally I found the beds the creepiest part. There was another rooms with double beds that made me jump a little when I saw them.
The ghost-town of Pripyat is only 3km from the power plant. It was a city of hope, prosperity, new beginnings. Young families were coming here to start a new life. It had a population of 50,000 people but had facilities that cities twice it’s size would dream of. It was an incredible opportunity for people to move here. Until April 26th 1986. On April 27th 1986, these young families had to drop everything. Leave their lives behind them and run from this invisible killer.
I didn’t feel what I thought I would while I was there. I expected to be overwhelmed with emotions but I wasn’t. I think nature had over taken the buildings so much that it made it too difficult to imagine what it had been like. I’d seen the photos, I’d watched the documentaries and I had a different picture in my head of what it would be like. As the tour went on, Constantine showed us photos of what certain spots used to look like. When he held these photos up in front of the grey, overgrown reality, that was powerful.
Is it safe to travel to the exclusion zone? How much radiation are you exposed to?
Our Geiger counter readings from the day:
In Kiev, 0.015
At first checkpoint, 0.013
Outside the Kindergarten, 1.43
Entering Pripyat, 18.17
At the waterfront in Pripyat, 55.58 (The Geiger counter went a bit crazy here, that’s over 300 times the usual radiation level. What stood out to me the most about this was, that piece of paper stayed there. It wasn’t coming back with us! It had been in contact with a high level of radioactive particles.)
On a day trip to Chernobyl you will be exposed to 2.2 of radiation.
On a flight from Kiev to Toronto you will be exposed to 22.2 of radiation.
I am glad I visited Chernobyl. I found it extremely interesting. It was an incredible experience. Although it wasn’t as emotional as I’d expected, it was extremely moving. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but if it’s something you think you’d be interested in I would highly recommend it.
To lighten the mood, and not have you leaving here feeling down… there’s another reason I didn’t experience the emotions I had expected, let’s just say I was a little distracted…
On the way to Chernobyl we were briefed on all the rules and regulations. Don’t take anything away with you, don’t touch any animals, don’k drink the river water – fairly reasonable requests in my opinion!
Another was, do not touch anything. The only part of you that can touch the ground are your shoes. No kneeling, climbing or sitting for photos. If you drop something don’t pick it up etc.
The reason for this? Everybody has to pass through radiation detectors when they leave the zone. If you have a higher than normal level of radiation on you, you might have to leave something behind. Most of the radiation dust lies on the ground, particularly the soil.
Our guide told us how last year they had a woman who sat on the ground to take a photo and had to go back to Kiev in her underwear!!!!! Her jeans had too much radiation dust on them. The fear of God was put into me – don’t drop your phone!!
So when Ruth was taking a photo just across the road from the Pripyat sign of the Geiger counter reading 18.17 she got lost in the excitement of it and RESTED HER KNEE ON THE SOIL. It took me about 4 seconds to realise what I’d done and I jumped back up. That was it, I was convinced I was going to have my pants taken off me. I was going back to Kiev in my underwear. I tried rubbing my knee and shaking the dust off but I just thought “Feck I’m spreading it!” I couldn’t relax for the rest of the trip. I just kept thinking about how cold and embarrassed I’d be. Not to mention loosing a favourite pair of jeans.
When we reached the checkpoint I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. “Here we go.”
….I passed!!! The relief. Ohh the relief!!
You have not experienced the level of relief I did when I passed the radiation test at the checkpoint!! I got to keep my jeans 😀 Hurrah!!