“Care! Radiation!” The sign warned that I was entering the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
There was no turning back now. My documents were checked, and the armed guards waved us across the security line, straight into the fallout area.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred on 26th April 1986, in the Ukrainian Socialist Republic- then part of the Soviet Union- when testing at the nuclear power planet went completely and utterly wrong. Reactor Number 4 exploded, releasing deadly levels of radiation into the air, and producing a fallout which would eventually spread across half of Europe. To this day, the Exclusion Zone- around 1000 square kilometres of land to the north of Kiev- is still heavily contaminated with decaying, radioactive particles.
During the minibus journey from Kiev all those intrepid travellers making the trip with Solo East Travel– Ukraine’s radiation tour specialists- had been shown various documentaries about the event, and the subsequent events that led to the evacuation of the population. Then we were shown a few clips from the many horror movies that have been set in the abandoned villages and towns. Of course, these all featured dangerous and radioactive humans and animals. It struck fear into the heart of me. Who knew what manner of monster could be roaming in the zone?
My guide warned that there was no real danger though, apart from a few wild- presumably mutant- animals of course. He’d taken a Geiger counter onto a flight a few weeks before and there was more radiation up in the skies than you were likely to find in the Exclusion Zone, except if you somehow found a way into the heart of the decaying reactor that caused the disaster.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t an abnormal quantity of radiation in the Exclusion Zone and there was every danger of accidentally ingesting a radioactive particle- be careful what you eat in Chernobyl. Luckily, the guides were armed to the teeth with Geiger counters, and these would periodically explode into life as we passed excessively contaminated areas. Moss in particular. There’s a lot of radioactive moss in the zone.
We were stopped by security at various intervals during the day as well, and submitted to intense radiation level checks to ensure that no one would grow a second head when they returned to Kiev.
Once inside the zone, we stopped by a haunting memorial to the disaster- a long list of the names of the villages and towns which were evacuated and have, for the most part, remained completely devoid of human life since.
Initially, the Soviet Union tried to keep things quiet, but with radiation soon spreading as far as Sweden, it wasn’t long before the world had clocked that something mightily big had occurred. Even so, local citizens weren’t told that they were in danger, and the evacuation wasn’t exactly immediate. When the decision was finally made to move the populations of nearby towns, residents were given no time to collect their personal belongings. They believed they would return in only a few days.
A few brave folk have been allowed to return in recent years. But these settlers are few in number. There isn’t much in the way of anything left here now, no infrastructure, and very little uncontaminated water. Sadly, it’s a desolate place to call home.
We were shown an abandoned primary school. It was…well…it was creepy. Things in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are very much as they were 30 years ago when people left. Nothing has been allowed out since for fear of further contamination outside the containment area. Each building is now a harrowing snapshot into a traumatic time. Each is different, and each is strangely, scarily personal.
The primary school was littered with books, dolls, cuddly animals- all slowly withering away. And all very radioactive still. This isn’t the place to come hunting for souvenirs.
The beds in the school were bare and empty, but the children’s toys are there for the macabre and foreseeable future.
We drove further into the zone- to the centre of Chernobyl- to Reactor No. 4. This is the site where the tragedy occurred, when early in the morning, on a fateful day in 1986, routine testing caused an explosion that would irrevocably change the lives of thousands of people, and irreversibly change the landscape of swathes of surrounding land.
The reactor was hastily sealed off immediately after the explosion, in what was known as the sarcophagus. Workers were sent right into the core, and many would die and more would develop later in life horrible complications from the high exposure levels they were submitted too during their efforts to contain the dangerous radiation leaks. But their sacrifices weren’t in vain, and the leak was subdued, although not before huge quantities of radiation had already been released.
The concrete and lead sarcophagus was only ever intended to be temporary. In the years since it has been reinforced and repaired to keep it in place, and only now is a newer solution in progress. A modern sarcophagus is being built next to the reactor, and once completed, will be moved on rails over the entire complex. It’s hoped that this will contain any further radiation leakage before the older sarcophagus collapses. Surprisingly, even after the accident, the remaining reactors continued to be used to produce electricity until well into the 1990’s, before being decommissioned. You’d think someone would have learnt some sort of lesson from the disaster…
Pripyat is the largest abandoned settlement in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. After passing the reactor, we went to see for ourselves the town which so many people have never returned to.
Pripyat was purpose built, designed specifically for the workers at the nearby nuclear power plant of Chernobyl and by all accounts it was a model Soviet town, built for Ukraine’s finest engineers, scientists and their families.
In the main square, the trees have taken over, and the main boulevards, once wide and open lanes, are more jungle than road now.
Pripyat had a population of almost 50,000 when the disaster at Chernobyl occurred, and of course had all the expected institutions of a town of this size, and an affluent town at that. From department stores and restaurants, to schools and swimming pools, all are now abandoned.
There’s even a fair ground behind the main square. It was only open for a few hours before Pripyat was evacuated, being intended for the upcoming May Day celebrations that were planned for the following week.
Now, the Ferris Wheel and Dodgems are collecting rust, and provide a dramatic backdrop for anyone travelling to Chernobyl. It’s surreal. And it’s hard to imagine the people of Pripyat carelessly enjoying the fair ground rides, moments before they leave everything behind, to never again return.
We strolled around the empty town centre, the fair ground rides and overgrown restaurants, before our guide took us over to an old sports complex. The windows had long since fallen out but the basketball nets were still hanging from the walls.
On the same floor was an empty swimming pool, the bottom now covered in broken glass and scraps of jagged metal that had fallen from the ceilings. The diving platform was still standing- not that you’d want to use it- and I was told that the pool was still filled, used and maintained until the 1990’s, years after the disaster, by workers at the reactor site looking for a little leisure time. I’m hoping they brought water in from outside the zone.
Then we headed over to a multi storey High School, where the classrooms were covered in discarded books, papers and notebooks, and socialist propaganda still filled the corridors.
Hundreds of pupils were in class when the evacuation was ordered, and they left behind a Soviet time capsule for us to now explore.
The blackboards have one by one fallen from the walls since 1986, and the school is slowly falling apart, piece by piece.
One room is still covered in gas masks. In the Soviet days, the children would undergo emergency drills, and practice putting these on. Now they are all just rotting away on the crumbling floor.
Across the road from the school we visited an apartment block. The rooms were small, crowded, but these uniform flats were at the time some of the finest in Soviet Ukraine.
The people had fled so abruptly that they even left food in the ovens when they were ordered out.
I could have spent days exploring the ruins of Pripyat. Each room, each flat is an insight into a time long since past, and due to the nature of the evacuation, each building is a sad tribute to the lives of those who used to live here.
The final stop on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone tour was a military base. This had been a top secret area during the Soviet times, and even local residents believed it to be a scout camp for children from across the USSR, I was told by the guide, rather than ever being told what it was really was, the site of the Russian Woodpecker.
The Russian Woodpecker was a huge- and I mean, outlandishly huge- over the surface radar system used during the Cold War. It was powerful, so powerful it disrupted commercial radio systems, including aviation communications, across Europe, even leading to speculation that the Soviets were building mind control devices to attack the West with.
The guide wouldn’t let me climb to the top, but he did say from experience that the view was spectacular. You could see most of the zone if the wind didn’t blow you off first.
On the way out of the zone, we were all thoroughly inspected for any radiation contamination. Everyone was clean. It seemed as if the dangers had indeed been slight. The radiation we left behind us as we drove back to Kiev, but it was difficult to shake the feeling of desolation caused by the Chernobyl disaster, of entire towns abandoned and families never able to return to their homes. At least I wasn’t radioactive though.
I made the trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with Solo East Travel. They even flew a few drones attached with cameras around Pripyat. You can check out the video below!
For more pictures from Chernobyl, then check out my Photos From The Road.