Chernobyl is the most depressing site I’ve ever seen
I knew beforehand that this would be the most difficult story to write. This is not a simple cheerful blog about the colourful streets of Chefchaouen in Morocco, the charm of the city of St. Petersburg, or even romanticizing about the trans-Siberian railway. Instead, this blog is about sharing an experience like no other; The experience of visiting the site of the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind, a disaster that could have wiped out half of Europe, and a disaster which the whole world should learn a lesson from.
I was a child when Chernobyl nuclear reactor number 4 exploded on April 26th, 1986 but I remember hearing about Chernobyl a lot while growing up. Many years later, I played a first-person shooter video game with my friends called “Call of Duty 4” where one of the levels is set in the city of Pripyat which is the city that was built to serve Chernobyl nuclear power plant and which was evacuated in the afternoon of April 27th, 1986. In the following years, I developed a deep interest in everything related to the former Soviet Union so Chernobyl topic was definitely one of my major interests. About 2 years ago, I watched the famous HBO Chernobyl TV show and that encouraged me to read at least 2 books about the disaster and its consequences. The books are “Voices from Chernobyl” and “Midnight in Chernobyl”.
After 2 previous visits to Ukraine, I finally made a decision to visit Chernobyl. I realized that I was ready for such an adventure and I made my decision to visit the site about a month before my trip so I booked my tour through Tripadvisor here. Visiting this dangerous site isn’t permitted unless by a guided and licensed tour. The tour I booked was for a full day tour (About 13 hours) and it included permits, transportation, a professional and licensed guide, dosimeter rental, lunch, and insurance. The tour cost me around 114 USD (150 CAD).
It’s mandatory to have a passport with you during the trip as it’s impossible to cross Chernobyl border without it. Furthermore, it’s obligatory to wear long sleeves top (shirt or jacket) and closed shoes and pants which cover the ankle. It’s a very good idea to bring some food, snacks, and water as this tour provides one meal only.
We were about 16 people on the bus from different nationalities in addition to the experienced guide -her name is Daria- and the driver. The bus left the meeting point at 8 am sharp and we arrived at the exclusion zone first border at around 9.40 am where our passports and permits were checked. It took us about 40 minutes to get permission to start driving inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone which covers an area of 2,600 km2 in Ukraine and Belarus.
The village Zalissya
The first stop after crossing the first border into the zone was Zalissya, a village which was abandoned in 1986. It’s a deserted village today and buildings are being engulfed by forest and there’s a haunting calm hanging in the air. We managed to slowly and carefully enter some of the houses in the village but had to walk on the edges as the wooden floor is fragile and may easily break. I wanted to enter more houses but it was risky to do so because of the deteriorating condition of these abandoned houses.
This is when I started to use the dosimeter for the first time and I didn’t notice any high radiation readings in this village. In fact, radiation levels were within the acceptable limits so I believe it was completely safe to wander around the village unless there are hot spots here or there, that’s why it’s always important to watch the readings of the dosimeter.
Chernobyl Welcome sign
A few minutes later, we made a stop at another landmark inside Chernobyl exclusion zone which is the old Chernobyl welcome sign written in the Ukrainian language. It was an opportunity for us to take photos of this landmark and to admire some Soviet art.
Monument to Those Who Saved the World
Shortly after, we arrived at the site of a monument which our guide Daria said that it’s her favourite monument. After learning the story about this monument, I completely understood why it’s her favourite; this monument is to honour firefighters and more than 600,000 liquidators who sacrificed their health and their lives to prevent another bigger catastrophe. The monument was built by liquidators themselves who were not specialized in any sculpture art yet they managed to create this impressive and meaningful monument. Below is a close image of one of the divers who went underneath the reactor to prevent a bigger explosion. These people literally saved the world.
The Church of the prophet Elijah in Chernobyl
There is a miracle about this church that is worth sharing; This is the only church in the area of the exclusion zone and the radiation levels there are well below the other levels across the zone, even when the disaster happened in 1986, the area around the St. Elijah Church was clean from radiation and inside the Church was entirely clean too. Is it a miracle? Many people say that it is.
Change in the plan
We were supposed to drive closer to Chernobyl reactor number 4 and Pripyat -where the most interesting part of the trip is- but we were told that we can’t enter the area until 3 pm. As a result, we had around 2 extra hours to spend and that gave us the chance to visit some sites which were not included in our tour. There was a very interesting visit to the house of one of Chernobyl residents who returned back to the area after the evacuation and who refused to leave her home since then. She’s 82 years old and she’s in a good health despite living in a radioactive area for more than 30 years. She even survived Covid a few months ago. She showed us some incredible and generous Soviet/Ukrainian/Russian hospitality by offering us a lot of food and she even played the accordion for us along with her crazy singing dog. The warmth and even the smell of her home reminded me of my grandmother’s house in Palestine. Looks like grandmothers from Ukraine, Russia, or Palestine have a lot in common.
Getting very close to reactor number 4
After spending 2 extra hours, our guide was told that they would finally allow us to cross the second border and we would be able to get very close to the reactor that exploded in 1986. I realized that the interesting part of my trip is about to start. Everything I saw before this point was definitely interesting but I was looking forward to seeing Pripyat more than anything else.
The closest we could get to the reactor was right next to the monument to the casualties of the Chernobyl disaster. The reactor is now covered by new safe confinement which cost more than 2 Billion Euros. It fully covers the reactor along with the Soviet-built sarcophagus which was built in 1986 in less than 5 months. The levels of radiation right outside the reactor decreased a lot from 1986 but it’s still slightly higher than normal now; it’s worth mentioning that the dosimeter reading dropped from 5.19 μSv/h in 2016 before building the new safe confinement to around 1.25 μSv/h now.
Time for a Soviet-style meal
After a long wait, it was time for a Soviet-style lunch, a meal I was looking forward to. We made a stop at a cafeteria that is very close to the reactor. It was a столовая (Stolovaya) style cafeteria (you get a tray and pick dishes you want from what is available in front of you). I like Stolovayas because it’s another thing that reminds me of the Soviet Union and I also believe that it’s an interesting concept and the food there is generally good and cheap (at least it’s not junk food). I must admit that Chernobyl Stolovaya wasn’t the best one I’ve ever been to but I must say that it wasn’t bad. The food actually tasted fine even though the boiled chicken with pasta was a bit tasteless but pickles did the magic in that dish. The soup and the salad were both really good and the Компот (Kompot) drink was tasty and refreshing. I enjoyed some conversations with a new friend I met there (A French doctor who likes to visit strange countries). I guess we found something in common as we both share the same passion for visiting exotic countries. It was a good time.
Pripyat, once a dreamland, now a waste land
Words can’t say how much I was looking forward to seeing Pripyat, the ghost town which I heard, read, and watched many books, documentaries and TV shows about. It was a very special moment when we arrived at the iconic Pripyat city sign. This sign is iconic and I saw it in books and documentaries numerous times so it was a special feeling to see it in real life and I realized that I’m getting very close to a place which I always wanted to explore.
Pripyat was a very beautiful city; It was a brand new city built to serve the nearby Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The city had a population of 50,000 by the time it was evacuated on April 27th, 1986, one day after the disaster. I read that the city was one of the best cities to live in the former Soviet Union. Actually, when I told the guide about that, she paused for a moment and said “It wasn’t one of the best, it was the best”. People living there were carefully selected by Soviet authorities; they were the most intelligent and the most educated scientists in the entire Soviet Union. Living in Pripyat was like a dream.
The city was ahead of its time and had many amenities which no other city of its size in the entire Soviet Union would dream about; An Olympic size swimming pool, a football stadium, an amusement park, 20 schools and kindergartens, a hospital that could accommodate more than 400 patients, and more… this small city had 33,000 roses, can you imagine? Living there was like a dream, a beautiful dream until the disaster happened…
Residents of Pripyat were evacuated on April 27th, 1986. They were asked to carry the necessary items only and they had to leave in 4 hours. They left everything behind, including pets. They were told it was temporary and they would be able to come back soon, but that never happened…
We started the tour in the city with a visit to a building (I believe it’s a school) that has a gym and an Olympic size swimming pool inside it. The swimming pool was still in use by liquidators until 1996, a decade after the disaster.
After the visit to the impressive Olympic size swimming pool, we walked around the kindergarten. Note that these haunting pictures are artificial as these dolls were brought by stalkers (A group known to sneak into Chernobyl illegally to explore abandoned buildings). What these stalkers do is extremely dangerous but it is what it is.
Later, it was time to visit the most famous icon of Chernobyl which is the Ferris wheel in the amusement park. This amusement park had a beautiful Ferris wheel, bumper car, paratrooper ride, and swing boats. There is another sad story about this beautiful amusement park; It was to have its grand opening on May 1st, in time for the May Day celebrations but the disaster happened 5 days before the opening so this amusement park was never used.
Many of these rides reminded me of childhood in Kuwait as we had rides which were identical to the ones I saw at Chernobyl such as the bumper car and paratrooper ride so I was deeply saddened by this.
It was a special moment when I saw the iconic Ferris wheel in real life. This Ferris wheel is probably one of the most iconic in the world and it has always been associated with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. I’ve seen so many Ferris wheels in my life. Actually, I’m obsessed with them and love to take photos of them everywhere I travel but this one isn’t like any other Ferris wheel I’ve ever seen. It’s been more than 35 years since the disaster happened yet it looks as if it’s freshly painted a day ago. Words can’t say how charming it looked. This Ferris wheel was never opened too. Sad.
We walked around the city later and our guide Daria was telling us more about abandoned buildings in the city. The hotel Polissya building was one of the highest in the city and it was built in the 1970s to house delegations and guests visiting the Chernobyl power plant. We also saw some images of what the town square looked like before the disaster and how it looks now in addition to a visit to the supermarket. Pripyat had a western-style supermarket which was something very rare in the former Soviet Union.
I noticed that some parts of the city felt like in the middle of the jungle and the guide told us that trees started to grow aggressively after the disaster. Nobody knows why there was a rapid and aggressive growth of trees and no one could prove if radiation spurred this aggressive growth.
Pripyat kept on impressing me with its landmarks as it even had a football stadium. There’s another sad story about it; The stadium was built to become the home ground of the football team FC Stroitel Pripyat and guess what? The club never had the chance to play at this stadium because of the disaster…
On the way back to the bus, we passed by the hospital. Unfortunately, it’s strictly forbidden to enter the hospital as it contains high levels of radiation and the basement of the hospital contains the clothing worn by the firefighters. These items still emit dangerously high levels of radiation to this day.
The last stop of this remarkable tour was at Radar Duga; A massive and secret radar built by the Soviets in the late 1960s to warn the Soviet Union of any ballistic missile attack by the US. This radar was nicknamed “Russian Woodpecker” by shortwave listeners for their emissions randomly sounding like a sharp tapping noise.
The structure is massive and impressive. It probably has nothing to do with Chernobyl nuclear reactor number 4 disaster but it happened to be built inside the zone which is called the exclusion zone today so a stop there was definitely worth it. It’s impossible to take a good photo of this massive structure with a normal camera; You definitely need a drone to get a perfect shot for it.
This is a trip like no other; Making a decision to go there was difficult, being there was difficult, and writing about it now is difficult. I was deeply touched by the stories I heard during the tour and by the things I saw. There’s still more to see in Chernobyl (especially in Pripyat) but it’s impossible to cover everything in a 1-day tour and that’s why there are 3-day tours -which are more exclusive- for those who want to spend more time in Chernobyl and see more of it.
The tour is safe as long as you follow guidelines. There are people who work in the exclusion zone (they change shifts every 2 weeks) and there are guides who go there almost daily and they’re all in a good health. The levels of radiation at most of the places covered in this tour are relatively low. However, there are some hot spots here and there so you need to make sure that you never touch these items. After the tour, you will have to go through radiation detection machines which will be able to detect any radiation you may be carrying.
Approximately, 300,000 people were displaced from their homes in Ukraine and Belarus. This area is now called “The Exclusion Zone”. They were told this was temporary but they never returned as it’s forbidden to return, except for very few of them.
400 miners worked 24/7 for 1 month to prevent a total nuclear meltdown, at least 100 of them died before the age of 40. Over 600,000 liquidators served in the exclusion zone and risked their health and their lives to save the world.
We will never know the actual human cost of Chernobyl; Most estimates range from 4,000 to 93,000 deaths. The official Soviet death toll, unchanged since 1986, is … 31.
I dedicate this blog to all those brave people who sacrificed their souls to save the world…
In memory of all who suffered and sacrificed…