As a tourist, Chernobyl is one of the most haunting, unique, and fascinating places I’ve ever visited. It definitely falls under the category of ‘dark tourism’ and might not be for everyone. However, I appreciated learning more about the history and our guides from SoloEast did an incredible job showing us around and making us feel safe. This was another stop on my fabulous tour through the Ukraine with Cobblestone Freeway Tours!
Chernobyl is a 90-minute bus ride from Kiev and made for an interesting day trip. In order to visit, you must have a guide and also need security clearance which can take a few days so be sure to plan ahead. For those who aren’t familiar, Chernobyl was the site of the largest uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment in history. This catastrophic nuclear accident occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat. The data often varies, but this disaster ended up killing and affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions. It also created a zone of nearly 20 miles that had to be evacuated due to the dangerous radiation levels. This radiation won’t go away for hundreds of years!
Since 2011, Chernobyl has been a tourist attraction and sees almost 40,000 visitors a year. We used a geiger counter during our visit which is an instrument used for measuring the radiation levels. We measured our levels in Kiev before leaving and it was .15. Upon arrival, you pass through several security checkpoints.
Quite surprisingly, there is still a working hotel inside Chernobyl exclusion zone, The Desiatka Hotel. It hosts tourists who are on official guided tours. There are more than 3,000 workers still active in the Zone, living in Chernobyl town during 4-day and 15-day shifts. They commute daily to work at the Chernobyl plant from their new homes in Slavutych.
We saw a monument which showed us all of the towns that were evacuated after the disaster. The were around 80! It really started to sink in just how tragic this event was. Not only were people in extreme danger, but the thought of leaving your home forever is completely heartbreaking.
While driving through the forest, the geiger counter started beeping and I immediately noticed the trees. They had this red color to them from the radiation that they were exposed to. I almost felt like I was in another world.
Upon entering the 30km radius Exclusion Zone, we were briefed on what we would be seeing. One of our first stops was a huge radio tower called the Duga radar, known as the Russian Woodpecker. It was an over-the-horizon radar system designed to warn of an impending nuclear attack. It is now part of the nuclear wasteland.
It was especially difficult visiting the abandoned schools, apartments, and hospitals. As you can see from the haunting photos, this isn’t your typical tourist attraction. Throughout our tour, we would use the geiger counter to measure the radiation levels, or it would start beeping to alert us that it had risen.
There were a few hot spots during our tour, but the highest radiation reading was closest to Reactor Number 4 where my geiger went up to 1.14, and we couldn’t stay long.
The hospital was another place with high radiation level readings. When the accident occurred, the firefighters who were stationed outside the nuclear reactor were the first ones to arrive. They weren’t dressed in protective gear so they were exposed to very high levels of radiation. When they were hospitalized, their clothes were buried in the basement of the hospital.
The abandoned town of Pripyat and its iconic fairground is probably the most well known image of Chernobyl and it’s definitely the most eerie. This is a true ghost town, except it’s not something you watch on TV or in movies. I had to remind myself of that quite often during the tour because it’s almost unbelievable.
Chernobyl has a vast population of radioactive animals which include over 250 stray dogs that roam the grounds. Because of this, the fox shown below thinks its a dog and was exploring the area and coming up to people in search of food! I also noticed bees and ants that were absolutely enormous because of the radiation. It was fascinating and also a little bit creepy.
Throughout the tour, you pass through many radiation checkpoints. At the very end, we went through the detectors one last time to make sure we didn’t have any traces of radiation on us or our belongings. Luckily, everyone in our group had the green light and we headed back to Kiev in the early evening.
I will never forget my visit to Chernobyl. Like many dark tourism sites, this isn’t the easiest place to explore but I think it’s important to learn about what happened and pay your respects to those who once lived here. Big thanks to SoloEast Travel and Cobblestone Freeway for organizing this special experience!