With my time coming to close, I had one important thing remaining on my things-to-see,-places-to-go-in-Ukraine list: Chernobyl. Because after all, talking to anyone in America, Chernobyl is always their first association with the word “Ukraine.” And while my two years here have given me plenty of material to expand on the word “Ukraine” with, I still wanted to be able to say “yeah I’ve been there, done that, seen the radioactive catfish. But Ukraine is really about the borsch and salo, let me tell you.”
For those of you who are worried that I took my life into my hands on this little adventure, rest easy. Spending a few hours in the Exclusion Zone at Chernobyl gives you the same dose of radiation as a flight from New York to London. We didn’t wear radiation suits, but we did go through multiple radiation checkpoints, and the machine dubbed me “chisto” (clean) every time.
All that aside, seeing Chernobyl was definitely the coolest thing I’ve done in Ukraine. I went with two other volunteers, my friends Andy and Danny (who I also mentioned in my blog posts about Venice, because we traveled there together too!). We had just finished our COS (Close-of-Service) Conference, and it was a now-or-never type moment. I felt like I deserved a reward for completing my service, and going on the expensive-but-oh-so-fascinating tour of Chernobyl definitely fit the bill.
We met our tour guide in downtown Kiev, and she led us to a van with a driver waiting. We handed over a substantial amount of cash, and part of me felt like this is what a drug deal must feel like. The other part of me wondered if this was the part where they kill us and hide our bodies. But lucky for us, they gave us breakfast and we set off.
Chernobyl is located two hours north of Kiev, and we knew we had arrived when we saw a huge checkpoint up ahead. The guards checked our passports, and another tour guide got in the van with us. At this point I started feeling a little nervous–we were really doing this!After we were cleared, we entered the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, known as the “Exclusion Zone” for short. This refers to the 30 square kilometers surrounding Chernobyl that has been cordoned off, almost completely abandoned after its residents were evacuated. Some areas still have incredibly high levels of radiation, while others are almost normal.
In the van, our official tour started. It turned out the new guy who joined us at the checkpoint was our authorized Chernobyl guide, and his name was Yevhenia. Tanya, the girl who met us in Kiev, turned out to be the tour manager and this was actually her first time at Chernobyl. She was a bit scared, which didn’t do much for my confidence in the adventure we were about to undertake.
We had only been inside the Exclusion Zone for five minutes when Yevhenia barked out a command in Russian for the van to stop. Here is the part where we get murdered, was my first though. But he jumped out of the van, crossed the road, and then beckoned for us to follow him. Through the woods we could see some of the wild horses that the Exclusion Zone is famous for, called the Dzungarian horse. These wild horses are endangered, but have thrived upon their introduction to the Exclusion Zone. It serves as almost a nature preserve for them, because the area is closed off and they have free run of the place.
We got back in the van and resumed our tour, and a few minutes later we pulled over in front of a World War II monument. Our guide told us that we were in the remains of a former village, and we were stopping to see a school. No school was insight though, and everything was deadly quiet.
Yevhenia led us through the woods, which had grown up over what used to be the schoolyard and took us inside the building. It looked more like a natural disaster had taken place rather than just the simple abandonment that actually occurred. The windows were shattered and toys and school supplies littered the rooms. It was creepy, I have no better word to describe it.
After we left the school, we continued on into the Exclusion Zone. We stopped to see this memorial for those who died in the immediate aftermath of the explosions at Chernobyl, fighting fires with no protection from the radiation that the firefighters were being exposed to. At least 30 people died from radiation poisoning in the following days.
We got back in the van and resumed our tour, with the first major stop being the ghost town of Pripyat. Here’s a picture of me and the boys; we look too happy to be on a tour of Chernobyl, right?
Pripyat was founded in 1970 as a place for power plant workers and their families to live. Following the Chernobyl Catastrophe (which is what its called in Russian and Ukrainian), everyone was forced to evacuate. The residents were told they would be able to return once the area was free of contamination, but this before the true extent of the radiation poisoning was known. Consequently, people left many of their belongings thinking they would be able to come back. Today the city is completely abandoned, yet full of empty apartment buildings and schools.
By far, the coolest yet creepiest part of Pripyat was the murals. They popped up unexpectedly on buildings, making your stomach crawl but adding to the atmosphere of the ghost city.
As we wandered around inside Pripyat, our tour guide related the events following the explosions at Chernobyl. The townspeople weren’t informed that anything catastrophic had even happened; they thought it was a simple electrical fire. The Soviet Union didn’t even admit that their was a nuclear leak; it was only after radiation particles were detected in Sweden that the world discovered a major nuclear catastrophe had taken taken place in the western Soviet Union. The Soviet state media downplayed the severity of the incident, and as a result, people in the surrounding area were subjected to incredibly high amounts of radiation before the evacuation was undertaken.
Just weeks before the accident, a fun park had opened in downtown Pripyat. Today the abandoned and rusted ferris wheel and bumper cars are fixtures in the guided tours of the area.
As we stood taking pictures of the bumper cars, our guide wandered over holding the Geiger Counter. As he came closer to us, and the bumper cars, the steady “beep…beep…beep” of the Geiger Counter started speeding up, indicating higher levels of radiation. By the time he reached us, it was freaking out, going “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP,” meaning we needed to move. Here’s a picture of the Geiger Counter, showing a reading of 81.70 µSv/h. µSv refers to Micro-Sievert, which is the most common standard of measurement for radiation.
After leaving the “fun park,” we saw countless abandoned buildings and even though it was incredibly eerie, it was also strangely peaceful. The sun was shining, and it was a perfect fall day… its like nature is reclaiming what man abandoned in Pripyat, and if this is how it looks 25 years later, I wonder what it will look like in the future.
Wandering down an empty corridor in the school… no wonder Chernobyl was used as the setting for a horror movie! I’m referring to the Chernobyl Diaries, which I haven’t seen but heard terrible things about.
After leaving Pripyat, we headed to the cafeteria where the current Chernobyl workers are fed. The current sarcophagus covering Reactor 4 and keeping the radiation inside has cracks in it, and it is feared that the sarcophagus might end up leaking radioactive waste. So right now workers are constructing the New Safe Confinement (NSC) to completely entomb the old sarcophagus. In the cafeteria, we saw lots of other tourists and experienced our first radiation checkpoint. Here I am getting checked out!
After lunch, our tour guide stole a ton of bread from the cafeteria, and we departed. We were finally on our way to see the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant!
Before taking us to Reactor 4, we stopped to see the cooling ponds, which contain very high levels of radioactive waste. You would think that the radiation would poison anything that once lived there, but this is not the case. The cooling ponds are home to the biggest catfish I have ever seen, catfish taller than I am. I kid you not. The bread we stole from the cafeteria was apparently for these monsters, who eagerly awaited the tourists. I was picking off little pieces and throwing them, when the tour guide told me I was doing it wrong. He rips off half a loaf of bread and throws it hard to the water’s surface. Moments later a catfish who’s mouth was bigger than my head rose to the surface and devoured it. The radioactive catfish were hands down the coolest thing we saw all day 😉
And finally, we have what you’ve all been waiting to see: Reactor 4, the scene of the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever known. It was kind of anticlimactic, to be honest. Our guide was very strict here about what we could and couldn’t take pictures of. Off limits was the New Safe Confinement being constructed to cover the old sarcophagus. But here is Reactor 4 today, with a memorial in front of it.
Below is a picture of the Geiger Counter, showing a reading right in front of Reactor 4 that is lower than the one we experienced in Pripyat. Apparently some areas in the Reactor show almost normal levels or radiation, while other rooms have such high amounts of radioactive waste that one exposure would be fatal.
Our guide also explained the events of that fateful day in 1986, when the engineers at Chernobyl ran a test of an experimental cooling protocol. A power surge occurred in Reactor 4, and they tried an emergency shut down, but it was too late. Another power surge led to a series of explosions that launched radioactive waste and remains of the fuel rods into the surrounding atmosphere. Fires broke out, and emergency response crews came from Pripyat and the surrounding areas to contain the blaze. The majority of the radiation contamination covered areas of what is today Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, but spread all over Europe as well. The Soviet Union was reluctant to admit what really happened, so it was days before the world knew the true extent of the damage. Today Chernobyl is remembered as the worst nuclear disaster ever. What a sad claim to fame for Ukraine 😦
So there you have it, Chernobyl in all its glory. I hope you enjoyed the pictures! Some of them were mine, but my camera was on the fritz and not all of my pictures turned out well. I used some of Danny’s pictures, as well as my friend Katie LaRoque’s, as she went to Chernobyl the week after we did. Thanks, friends! Also, Danny wrote a blog post about our adventure and included a lot more pictures, so if you’re so included, check it out by clicking on this link.
Thanks for reading!