Our day began at 08:15 when we were picked up by a representative of our chosen tour company at our apartment on Ploscha Lva Tolstoho, who delivered us to Independence Square for the 08:45 group meeting at our tour bus.
Bizarrely for us (but something that seems normal here in Ukraine judging by our other experiences later in the day), our pick-up representative didn’t introduce himself but just pointed us at his car, and we had to confirm he was actually from the tour company and that we weren’t just getting into a random Kievian’s car!
Our tour group was smaller than most, at ten people – three Brits (including us), three Yanks and four Dutch. From reviews I’ve read of tours in the past, smaller groups seem to get you more time in interesting places and more possibilities of cool experiences, which I can definitely agree with.
At 09:00 we set off for the Zone, and about two and a half hours later (filled with re-watching the excellent ‘Battle of Chernobyl’ documentary which I’d coerced Joanna (my girlfriend) into watching with me a week or so earlier) we arrived at the 30km Exclusion Zone entrance checkpoint.
The bus pulled up at the checkpoint, we were ushered out and up to the guard post where our passport details were checked against those supplied to the tour company before we came to Kiev – the Government is very strict on maintaining the rules of the Zone, and even having the wrong last passport number compared to your pre-supplied details can be a bureaucratic nightmare. Luckily, we all matched up and stepped our first steps in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
No photography or video of any kind is allowed at the checkpoints of the Zone, but there wasn’t much to see – a small guard post at the roadblock, a larger two story guard house, and a rusted yellow step-ladder contraption for guards to peer into trucks coming out of the area.
Here at the 30km checkpoint we met our Government-appointed guide for the day, Misha. Misha was born in a village in the Zone, and was evacuated with his family at the age of four – he has been a Chernobyl guide for three years.
We got back into the bus and proceeded into the Zone.
Alongside the largely unmaintained, eerily straight road we started to catch glimpses of abandoned houses and farm buildings.
After about ten minutes of driving and information from Misha including important dates and the like, we stopped at the city-sign of the town of Chernobyl, from which the NPP takes its name.
Chernobyl is inhabited by thousands of workers that operate in the Zone, who live there in shifts according to their work – either four days in the Zone, three days out, or fifteen days in, fifteen days out.
Chernobyl is home to the monument to destroyed/abandoned villages, a huge ‘graveyard’ of names of all the villages evacuated or buried after the disaster.
It is also home to a few of the emergency vehicles and disposal robots that were used during the liquidation of the disaster, on display.
Finally, the monument ‘To Those who Saved the World’ is here, erected on the anniversary of the disaster, it commemorates the firemen who drained the water from underneath the reactor chamber and thus saved Europe from certain catastrophe, as the molten radioactive sludge in the reactor melted through the floor of the chamber and into the previously flooded area, which would have caused an explosion many many times larger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, razing cities hundreds of km away to the ground.
Continuing on towards the CNPP itself, we passed the 10km checkpoint to enter the ‘Zone of absolute (mandatory) resettlement’ around the power plant. All the people within this 10km area were forcibly removed from their homes after the disaster.
We kept driving, stopping next at ‘Kopachi’ village – all the wooden houses of this area were so heavily contaminated that they were demolished and buried underground – all that remains of them are radioactive mounds impaled with danger and radiation signs.
We were able to visit the Kopachi kindergarten (which was not destroyed) and explore inside – a very chilling and creepy building, with children’s toys still scattered around.
After Kopachi came the main attraction – the power plant itself. We drove around the industrial complex towards the viewing point with cameras off – photography is strictly not allowed of anything but the reactor blocks three and four and the new sarcophagus construction, from the viewing point only.
At the viewing point we got the staggering view of the plant and sarcophagus – we are extremely lucky, as the iconic old ventilation chimney is to be removed by the end of this year. Anyone visiting after that will have missed a part of history.
The ‘New Safe Confinement’ – ‘Arch’ sarcophagus that is being constructed is about 300 metres from the reactor block four, and is staggeringly large. For scale, the red boxes marked ‘MAMMOET’ in the picture above are standard sized shipping containers.
The entire Arch is going to be slid 150 metres along its rails towards the plant, then an identical second half of the Arch will be constructed in the same location before both are joined together and then slid over the entirety of reactor blocks three and four.
The new containment structure is sorely needed, as the old sarcophagus is leaking and cracked, and even in danger of collapsing in the future.
Gamma radiation levels at the viewing point were obviously significantly higher than normal, but due to its low ionisation potential, the danger is extremely low.
Reluctantly leaving the power plant behind, we ventured towards the other main attraction of the Zone – the town of Pripyat.
Pripyat was home to 48,000 people at the time of the disaster, mainly power plant workers and their families. The average age of a citizen was only 27, and there were over 1,000 babies in the city.
Driving into the city, past its own security checkpoint, was like driving into a forest – a forest filled with 15 story Soviet tower blocks. The city is so overgrown it is almost impossible to drive around, with the main roads and regal boulevards being almost unrecognizable.
We got off the bus at the main square, barely recognizable as such, and walked towards the main plaza of the Palace of Culture and ‘Polissya’ hotel.
We were warned by Misha to avoid the moss growing on the ground as it soaks up much of the radiation from the soil and concentrates it inside itself – hard to do when there is so much of it however.
Continuing on we arrived at the famous amusement park – the ferris wheel, bumper cars, etc. Contrary to popular belief these were actually used, as only the ‘ceremonial opening’ was due on May 1st – five days after the disaster occurred, and thus this never happened.
This area was incredible. I never thought I would actually be able to stand underneath the ferris wheel and look up at it like I did!
After this we visited the Pripyat Stadium, or what remains of it. The only signs that it was ever a stadium are the seating stands and floodlight towers – the entire field has been reclaimed by nature and is now a forest just like the rest of the city.
The sheer volume of foliage almost makes the entire city feel unreal – it’s so difficult to see it as a ‘whole’, and is so detached from our normal view of a city that it feels extremely uncanny.
Next up we got to visit one of Pripyat’s several schools – this was a primary and secondary school, including classrooms, music rooms, gym and cafeteria, based over two stories.
Owing (I think) to our group size and available time, we were able to go inside the school and explore it for twenty minutes at our own pace. The interior was incredible, debris covering everything, furniture and fittings strewn around each room, and even a room filled with hundreds of gas masks poured out onto the ground. Boots are a necessity here as broken glass is absolutely everywhere.
Soviet propaganda and reading material was still on the walls and desks, and even sheet music still lay open on a piano.
Finally, we visited the Pripyat leisure complex, site of the well known swimming pool. This place is extremely eerie, and was apparently still used after the evacuation of the city by the scientific delegation living here dealing with the disaster!
Now long-drained, the pool is just a creepy remnant of the previous joys the people living here could experience.
As well as the pool there is another gym hall, floorboards rotting in place due to the numerous leaks prevalent in many of the buildings.
Thus, our tour of Pripyat and the Exclusion Zone was largely over – we returned to the bus and drove back, away from the NPP, back towards Chernobyl for lunch.
Lunch was a delicious large portion of traditional Ukrainian food, ingredients imported from outside the Zone and cooked in the Chernobyl workers canteen. Meat and vegetable broth, numerous types of bread, loads of vegetables and fruit, and fried pork with potatoes was on offer, all delicious.
After lunch, we drove back to the 30km Zone checkpoint and out of the Exclusion Zone. At both the 10 and 30km checkpoints we underwent personal radiation scans to check for any contamination – luckily, we all got the green light and were allowed to leave without being decontaminated!
With Misha having left us in Chernobyl (during his shifts he lives there with the other Zone workers), we only had our non-English-speaking Ukrainian bus driver left, and with Joanna and I needing to at some point get to our ‘Chernobyl Cottage’ accommodation just outside the Zone instead of returning to Kiev with the others, we stopped in the middle of an empty intersection five minutes outside of the Zone and were transferred over to an aging yellow car driven by an old chap. Using sign language and broken English on our parts we managed to confirm this was actually the transfer to our accommodation and not just a kidnapping!
I’m writing this from the absolutely beautiful ‘Chernobyl Cottage’ that we did manage to get to in the end, but as is only expected, the wifi here is not actually working right now and thus you’re likely reading this the day after the events I’ve written about actually happened!
Tomorrow we head back into the Zone for our private tour, and that is sure to be unbelievably good.
This blog post was written on the 24th of September and posted on the 25th. The blog post of the Private Tour of the 25th will be posted on the 26th or 27th. It was even more amazing than I thought it would be.