My Visit to Chernobyl
There are only a few places that have completely taken my breath away, and Chernobyl is one of these places. Here is my account of visiting the radiation zone of the Chernobyl disaster.
I have been in love with travelling for as long as I can remember. From backpacking through Western Europe to living in various countries throughout my youth, there isn’t a place I would not visit. I do, however, have a fascination with destinations that many would question at first glance. Areas that have gone through turmoil, holding troubling histories, or seem so out of place that travelling to them becomes more a burden than a means to relax. This is an account of one of those visits, and it has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. This is my account of travelling to Chernobyl, Ukraine, in December of 2018.
Chernobyl was a nuclear powerplant situated 83 miles away from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The powerplant was operated under Soviet rule and, due to poor management and being pushed past its operating capacity, overloaded, causing it to explode on the 26th of April 1986. This released harmful radiation into the nearby area and forced a mass evacuation of the local villages and city of Pripyat. Kyiv was saved due to the direction the wind was blowing that day; however, the radiation was spread across Europe without the knowledge of neighbouring countries, as the USSR attempted to hide the evidence of the explosion. Only when reports came explaining unusually harmful rainfalls and high radiation levels were detected as far as Switzerland did the Soviets admit to the accident. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history, and the area has been inhabitable since. The locals were evacuated, and a protective dome was placed over the reactor. Since the accident, the radiation levels have decreased, and the area began accepting tourists that wish to witness the zone, and I was one of those people.
Ukraine and Kiev
To get the complete picture of my experience, I first have to talk about entering Ukraine and staying in Kyiv the night before. As of the time of writing this post, Ukraine is the only country in Europe at war, currently fighting off the world power that is Russia. Due to the conflict, entering the country was not the usual airport experience one could imagine. The airport has multiple checkpoints that scan you and your luggage for possible weaponry. This was also the case when re-entering the airport during my return, except this time, I would begin the scanning right at the airport entrance. The airport was eerily quiet, with very few people around. When speaking to the border control, I was questioned thoroughly on why I was entering the country. I showed my ticket to Chernobyl, and they scanned my passport. Unlucky for me, the passport photo I have has quite an old photo of me from my teens that, with regret, has me with bright blue hair. This did not go well with the strict, unamused Ukrainian officials; however, I was allowed into the country with a disproving head shake, and my adventure began.
Kyiv is like no other capital I have visited. The hundreds of people walking through the snow in camouflage jackets and big hats mimicked most Eastern Europe’s major cities; however, Kyiv was different. The people were strangely quiet, mostly keeping to themselves and constantly moving onward. It was clear that the city has gone through something major, and the people were not in the celebrative mood that Christmas brought. I did not spend much time outside the hotel due to the cold and uncomfortable atmosphere. I regret this now, as I am sure that it would welcome me with open arms if I gave Kyiv a chance. If I ever return, I will explore its secrets and understand what the people are going through and how they live. Hopefully, I will choose a month less cold than the middle of December!
Pripyat and Chernobyl
Strangely, despite the disaster, Chernobyl felt more welcoming than Kyiv. We woke up at our hotel early to catch a small tour bus that would take us to the exclusion zone. We got given our PDR’s (Portable Radiation Detectors), and we were ready to go! We went through various checkpoints and had our bus inspected, and our passports scanned, and tickets validated. We began by driving through the neighbouring villages, making stops along the way to walk through the destroyed buildings and the horror-like environment.
The first thing that I noticed was the amount of plantation that seemed to swallow the derelict buildings. It indeed shows that, if allowed, nature will do what nature does best, spread and exist, with or without us. Talking about nature, the wild dogs of Chernobyl was the icing on the cake! These pups are some of the friendliest pups I met, and to see our tour guide play fight with them and have the smallest grab the tips of our coats to guide us around the area was like a fairy tale. The kindness in such an abandoned area confused me. I quickly began falling in a strange love with the place, and a part of my heart is left with the dogs of Chernobyl.
Our tour guide guided us through the buildings and provided us with some incredible facts. For instance, due to the snow covering the radiation on the ground and the long period since the disaster, a human would receive more exposure to radiation from the sun while flying a plane than when walking through the paths of Chernobyl. Of course, there are certain hotspots that are entirely out of bounds due to the attempts done by the government to dispose of dangerous materials. However, the zone is relatively safe to explore, and with the proper guidance, the radiation levels are nowhere near what they used to be. One of the most memorable moments of the trip was witnessing the red forest, a ten square-kilometre area surrounding the powerplant that has dyed the forest a beautiful ginger due to the high levels of radiation it absorbed since the disaster. Unfortunately for me, the winter did not allow the red leaves to come through. Its skeleton-like trees provided a haunting picturesque experience. With all the radiation symbols, it felt as if I was walking in a post-apocalyptic movie. I think this is the closest I will ever get to the experience apart from actual nuclear Armageddon, which hopefully we will never get to experience.
We drove a little further to arrive at the main attraction, Pripyat. The closest city to the reactor that housed 14,000 people before the disaster is now a ghost town. The houses stand tall, windows destroyed, and everything you could think of looted for scraps by local scavengers and treasure hunters. What is left is an empty skeleton of a once booming town, and the history speaks for itself. Humankind needs to be wary of nuclear power, or the whole world can experience what Pripyat did only years ago. The main attraction of Pripyat is the iconic Ferris Wheel. The old structure stands as a haunting opposite of its function, with a feeling that I cannot seem to describe flooding me every time I see it. I could sit and stare at it for hours, or even better, attempt to paint the structure on a canvas. There is a small spot under one of the carriages that to this day holds a large amount of radiation that I was able to place my PRD and detect. This spot was not washed away by the team who cleaned the area years ago and has not been eroded by rain or snow. When I was about to move away, my hand slipped, and I accidentally touched the spot with my glove. For the rest of the day, I did not touch any part of my face, and, with sod’s law, my whole body became the itchiest it has been in my life. Typical!
We then came to see the dome that sheltered the reactor. Knowing that only a couple of meters in front of us laid some of the most dangerous materials in the world was both thrilling and terrifying. I realised I had placed a lot of trust in the people that I was with. This did not matter now; I was looking at such a unique piece of history that my worries turned to child-like wonder. We left the reactor to enjoy a soviet meal that the workers of the powerplant ate pre-explosion. To my surprise, the other reactors that did not explore are fully functional and operating. We sat with the new reactor workers and enjoyed our meatballs, rice and cabbage soup. Honestly, it was not as bad as it looked. I have had much worse at established restaurants.
After our meal, we returned to our bus and made our way back. We went through a particular door that removed any excess radiation. Once we came out on the other side, we received a certificate that stated how much radiation was present in our body, which was little to nothing. I loved this souvenir; however, due to another trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, the posters were lost with my partner’s backpack. This only calls for me to return, this time in the summer, to see the ginger-coloured Red Forest and give Kyiv another chance. We said goodbye to the Chernobyl dogs, and we returned to our hotel before heading to the airport. To call this an adventure of a lifetime would be an understatement. I cannot wait till I return.
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