THE FORLORN, LONG-FORGOTTEN amusement park swing swayed ever so slightly in the breeze. Hauntingly, the neighboring abandoned Ferris wheel creaked quietly as the wind passed through its never-used carts.
It sketched a scene from a scary movie in many ways. As I learned that day, it was quite literally the set of a disaster horror film, 2012’s Chernobyl Diaries. And it was also one of many areas affected by the world’s worst manmade disaster, the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in 1986. There I stood, steps from these aging, slightly creepy amusement park rides, simply imagining the weight of the meltdown and its innumerable casualties.
And I’m not alone. As disaster tourism and urban exploration continue to surge in popularity, sites like Chernobyl become increasingly interesting to tourists. In 2016 approximately 40,000 visited the Ukrainian site, opting for daytrips or multiday journeys of up to seven days. That number is only expected to climb.
Is it safe? Naturally, this question crossed my mind and, truthfully, the minds of those closest to me. I read articles in advance of making my decision and was told the radiation exposure of one day in Chernobyl is equivalent to that of a round-trip, trans-Atlantic flight. My visit was more than 30 years beyond the April 26, 1986, incident, and after research, preparation and other assurances, I felt comfortable and confident in the decision to explore the area.
Perhaps there is no definitive answer to the question of safety; deciding to visit is a personal choice. As a precaution, I packed old clothes and bought cheap sneakers, all of which I discarded after my visit. People work at Chernobyl, tourists visit and life in some ways continues in the Exclusion Zone.
Chornobyl Tour operated my daytrip, departing Kyiv around 7:30 a.m. My group met the tour van near Kyiv Railway Station. Before departing, it’s important to keep in mind the guidelines required by Exclusion Zone regulations. No one is allowed in without a passport, so you must bring this with you. This is of critical importance. Our van stopped outside the entrance to the Exclusion Zone for nearly 30 minutes as our credentials were checked. A jacket or a shirt with long sleeves and trousers (no shorts, skirts or leggings allowed) and fully enclosed boots or sneakers are required. We didn’t arrive back in Kyiv until almost 8 p.m., so, additionally, prepare for an entire day away from the city and your hotel.
On the way from Kyiv to Chernobyl (with a stop to use restrooms and load up on snacks), our tour guide both shared information about the disaster and played a documentary that included commentary from involved parties such as Mikhail Gorbachev. It was heartbreaking to watch video clips of people living and working in Pripyat — a town built and planned specifically for the workers of Chernobyl Power Plant and their families and only three kilometers from the reactor — as radiation filled the air they breathed. They remained unaware as government officials, it seemed, figured out how to conceal the issue. Acid rain in Sweden in the days following the meltdown clued the world to the truth. The documentary also delved into the various clean-up efforts.
My daytrip included several different stops, starting with the Dytyatky checkpoint, the official entrance to the Exclusion Zone, and the village of Zalissya, an abandoned town including the house of the only self-settler, Rozaliya Ivanivna. The village of Kopachi is almost fully buried, but a kindergarten remains. Here, our Geiger counters, which we wore around our necks, went crazy, registering the highest levels of radiation we experienced all day. This offered a sobering thought. More than 30 years later, it’s still highly radioactive, yet children attended classes there the day after the reactor fire.
With a few other stops along the way — including to the reactor; to the power plant’s cooling pond where we fed giant catfish; and to a giant Soviet radar antenna, “DUGA-1,” in the secret town of Chernobyl-2 — we finally arrived in Pripyat, where we explored on foot the land Mother Nature is reclaiming. A former four-lane highway now is a barely discernible trail. The dilapidated buildings and soccer stadium remain home to everyday items like shopping carts, and some curtains still sway in the breeze, visible through shards of broken glass. Soviet-era vending machines stand ramshackle against a building, while the never-used, aforementioned amusement park lives on eerily. Urban explorers were once able to walk in these buildings, but today the threat of collapse renders the structures off limits. Our visit concluded in Chernobyl, where we ate a late lunch, viewed an open-air exhibition of the transport vehicles and robots used in the clean-up activities and paused for a moment at the memorial “to those who saved the world.”
Before departing from the Exclusion Zone, our radiation levels were measured. I received a 0.003 mSv irradiation dose.
As we began the trip back to Kyiv to spend the next few days exploring the country, I was certain of one thing: A spirit of revolution is alive in Ukraine.
Chernobyl Info to Go
International flights will arrive at Boryspil International Airport in Kyiv. Ukraine International Airlines operates a direct flight from New York (JFK) to Kyiv. As you visit Chernobyl with a tour company, transportation will be arranged to the Exclusion Zone.
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