Despite being the most radioactive place on earth, visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is surprisingly easy.
Radiation levels while standing on the main street entering Chernobyl, well inside the exclusion zone, are no higher than the background radiation in Kyiv. Most of the streets here were cleaned of radioactive particles in the years following the Chernobyl disaster.
I was surprised to learn that around 2,000 people still live temporarily inside the exclusion zone, including workers building the New Safe Confinement structure at the site of the former power plant.
But despite it’s temporary residents, most of the town of Chernobyl has been left permanently to the elements to rust and decay.
A typical house in downtown Chernobyl. The rotting fence has collapsed under it’s own weight, along with part the roof of the house itself.
Chernobyl kindergarten isn’t very inviting these days. As we walk through the trees, the radiation alarm on out dosimeter alerts us that the radiation level has increased around 15x, to around the level you might be exposed to on a commercial airline flight.
Placing a dosimeter just above the ground, our guide explains that most of the radioactive particles in Chernobyl have settled in trees and soil. You’d need to spend a day here to absorb the same radiation dose you’d get from a typical x-ray, but the danger comes from breathing in some radioactive particles that might lodge in your lungs.
A poem laying amongst debris and scattered papers inside the Chernobyl kindergarten. Coincidentally, it’s right around my Russian reading level.
“We go on a flight.
It’s ready to fly.
Let’s rush above the houses,
Let’s fly above the forests,
And then we’ll go back to Mommy”
The town of Pripyat was once home to 50,000 people, including workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Our guide explains that Pripyat was designed and built as a “model” soviet city, and shown to foreign delegations visiting the USSR.
The main street of Pripyat doesn’t see much traffic these days. If it weren’t for the tour vans, these roads would probably have been consumed by forest by now.
There’s not much left for sale at the Pripyat supermarket.
Who knows what this table may have been used for in the hours before the city was evacuated. Residents were given just two hours to pack, before loading into 1,000 buses out of town.
Our guide, living in Kyiv at the time, remembers the day all of the buses mysteriously vanished from Kyiv
Some political propaganda has survived, tucked just out of reach of the weather.
The amusement park in Pripyat was due to open just days after the Chernobyl disaster. It was opened for just a couple of hours before the town was evacuated on April 27, 1986, to keep residents of the town entertained after rumours spread about the situation at the power plant.
Walking around Pripyat, you can’t help but notice the emergence of nature from places we never intended nature to be. Seeds that have settled in cracks between sections of concrete have sprouted and started to reclaim the city.
Soviet propaganda may one day be the last thing left standing in Pripyat.
A noticeboard at Pripyat school still stands, after almost 30 years.
A flag for the former Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic still sits on a desk at Pripyat school.
“Have YOU signed up to volunteer”
What for, exactly, is unclear.
“The Forest Loves His Keeper”
Chernobyl’s Red Forest is one of the most radioactive places on earth, named after the ginger-brown colour of the pine trees that died here.
Astonishingly, the forest has become a fertile habitat for many endangered species, far from the reach of humanity.
How to visit Chernobyl
There are a few companies offering similar day-tours to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for around $100 USD, and a two day tour four around $250, staying at a small hotel in Chernobyl. Booking the tour was easy, but your tour guide will need to arrange your authorization to enter the exclusion zone, so book few days ahead.
We booked via go2chernobyl.com, since they offered a discounted price for Ukrainian citizens, but the group was a mix of Russian and English speakers, and the guide spent a lot of time speaking Russian. If you’re looking for an English-only tour, I’d recommend Solo East Travel, which followed the exact same itinerary as our tour, but was entirely in English. At several stops, I found myself drifting over to this group to eavesdrop.