I’m not exactly sure when I learned about the Chernobyl disaster.
I can’t have been a little kid, where on Earth would I have heard about such an event? I also know that it had to have been sometime prior to 2012. It was in this year that the horror film Chernobyl Diaries was released, and I remember watching that for the first time and already having a fair amount of knowledge about Chernobyl.
Where I learned about it I don’t recall, but visiting this zone has been something I have wanted to do for an incredibly long time. I wanted to see the abandoned cities, explore inside dilapidated homes and really try to immerse myself in a world that was abandoned in a few short hours.
My incredibly short Ukrainian stopover was purely motivated by finally visiting this zone – and it was even more interesting than I had hoped.
First things first, lets kick off this post with a little background information about the Chernobyl disaster.
On the 26th of April in 1986, safety systems in reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant were deliberately switched off so that workers could run tests. These tests resulted in uncontrolled nuclear reactions which caused the reactor to explode in the early hours of the morning. For the next 9 days, the nuclear reactor spewed tonnes and tonnes of nuclear waste into the atmosphere, in what would eventually come to be known as the most disastrous accident at a nuclear power plant in history.
In fact, the Chernobyl accident is one of only two events classified as a ‘level 7 event’ – the other being the 2011 Fukishima Nuclear Disaster in Japan.
The town of Pripyat was the closest town to the Chernobyl Power Plant, and home to around 49,000 inhabitants. Most of these inhabitants were the people who worked at the power plant and their families.
Despite the explosion occurring early in the morning on April 26th, life continued as normal for the town until the afternoon of the 27th. People went about their business, completely oblivious to the disaster that had occurred just a few hours prior. However, several inhabitants became severely ill hours after the explosion, reporting intense headaches, coughing and vomiting – all symptoms of radiation poisoning.
Almost no information had been given to those living in Pripyat until they were served with the following announcement at 11am on April 27th:
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev region. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
Three hours later at 2pm, evacuation was commenced and by 3pm, around 50,000 people had been evacuated to Kiev and its surrounding regions.
Residents were told to only bring the bare essentials, and repeatedly assured that this evacuation would only last for three days. Little did they know that most of them would never return to their homes.
Ten days after the accident, the evacuation efforts were expanded and those who lived within a 30km radius of Chernobyl were evacuated. This 30km zone was dubbed the ‘exclusion zone’ and it remains today.
There are two ways to enter the zone – the legal way, and the illegal way.
As much as it may seem cool to break into Chernobyl, Ukraine is not a country that I was keen on getting arrested in, so I chose to explore the zone the legal way – with a tour guide.
Even when entering the zone with a tour guide, the security is by no means half-assed. There are two checkpoints and at the first checkpoint you will need to present your passport for inspection. The tour companies provide security officers with a manifest of who they have booked on their tours, and security want to be certain that they know who is entering the exclusion zone.
Though most people would recognise the name ‘Chernobyl’, there probably isn’t a whole heck of a lot of people who would recognise the name ‘Pripyat’. Though Chernobyl is the site of the nuclear disaster, it is the nearby town of Pripyat which for me, was the most interesting.
Entering the zone was kinda eery at first, but literally within about 10 minutes of arriving I had made a new furry friend (who was most certainly not a mutant) and it made the abandoned town feel less like a scene from a horror film, and more like a real place with real history.
However, I am not gonna pretend like all the abandoned toys weren’t giving me a mild case of the heebie jeebies. Look at this next one peeking out from the snow!
Technically, it is illegal to enter buildings while inside the exclusion zone, but really, it is something that most people do. You just gotta keep your eyes peeled for security guards and police and make a pointed effort to remain as quiet as possible.
These next few photos were taken inside an old school.
The next building I entered was the old cafeteria. If you had wondered why it was illegal to enter these buildings, it might become obvious in the next few photos! There are so many safety and health hazards present, these rules and regulations are most likely just designed to keep any more people from getting hurt in this already infamous zone.
It is truly amazing how much the town has just been completely taken over by nature, and it is astonishing that so many plants can still grow and thrive in a zone which is so undeniably contaminated.
By this point, some of you may be wondering if it is safe to visit Chernobyl. I mean, after all, it is still referred to as the exclusion zone – so there must be some dangers, right?
As it turns out, provided you adhere to a few precautionary rules, a visit to Chernobyl will expose you to less radiation than the flight to Ukraine would!
When the reactor exploded, it spewed out radioactive particles. After this explosion, a team of incredibly brave men who were referred to as ‘liquidators’ spent months cleaning and decontaminating all of the buildings within the zone. That being said, many of these radioactive particles entered the soil and earth – meaning that trees, plants and soil from the ground should still be considered radioactive. However, as long as you don’t consume these plants or soil, this radiation will have no noteworthy effect.
There are still a few places in the zone which are considered ‘no-go’ zones. Inside the sarcophagus (the structure built over the reactor to prevent further radioactive pollution) – the levels of radiation are still high enough to cause acute radiation poisoning. So basically, just don’t try to enter the sarcophagus!
I spent my time exploring Chernobyl with a geiger counter in my pocket. A geiger counter is a small machine used to detect the levels of radiation exposure.
During one day in Chernobyl I was exposed to only slightly more radiation than I would’ve during one day in Kiev.
The Pripyat Amusement park was set to open on May 1st 1986 for the annual May Day celebrations, however, the reactor exploded just a few days before this could happen.
There are some reports that the ferris wheel was temporarily opened on April 27th before the towns evacuation as a way to distract the residents from the disaster occurring just a few kilometres away, but there are also reports saying that this did not happen.
Either way, this amusement park has become one of the most famous sites in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Of the several buildings I explored, the residential apartment blocks were perhaps the most sad. It is so strange to think that these apartments were once happy homes to thousands of people, and in just a few short hours these families were forced to leave almost everything behind and never return. I can’t even begin to comprehend what that must have been like.
It is quite easy to find yourself getting emotional while exploring these homes, but it pays to sometimes see things through more objective eyes. This doll wearing a gas mask was most probably placed here by someone who previously entered the zone in order to get a cool picture!
The absolute highlight of my day was also possibly the most illegal part (whoops) – the tallest buildings in the city are 17 storeys high, and I climbed to the top of one of them. From the top I was able to see the entire city, and I could even make out the nuclear reactor in the distance!
The downside of hanging out on the roof of a building?
It makes you rather easy to spot! Long story short, I ended up having a rather scary chase/game of hide and seek with some security guards. I wasn’t able to run fast (blasted knee) but I am pretty good at hiding, and luckily, I escaped without arrest!
After my near escape, it was time to head back towards Kiev. On the way we stopped at the Radar DUGA. This strangely named architectural marvel is what the Soviet government used before the invention of satellites to monitor the launching of ballistic missiles.
Then, after making one more furry friend, it was time to say goodbye to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The day I spent there was completely strange, sometimes scary and absolutely incredible. To anyone who has considered visiting the zone, do it, you definitely won’t regret it.
Getting to Kiev: Kiev is well serviced by two international airports – Boryspil and Zhuliany
Dream Hostel Kiev: A cheap hostel in a good location, just make sure you don’t get put in room 37!
Chornobyl Tour: A one day tour costs around $110 USD – click here for more info
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2/8 lens
Remember: If you are going to climb to the roof, don’t stay up there too long!