A Day Trip To Chernobyl From Kiev
Updated: Sep 7, 2019
Visiting the abandoned area of Chernobyl had been on my bucket list for a long time and picking up a cheap flight to Kiev finally allowed me to tick it off. Ever since the explosion of reactor four in 1986, most people had believed that it was impossible, or indeed stupid, to go inside the 30km exclusion zone that encompasses the reactor. However, since 2010, when the new 2 billion sarcophagus was built and placed over the reactor, it has been safe for the public to enter and get within 200m of it.
In order to visit Chernobyl, you have to go with an official guide. There are numerous companies that run varies types of tours, from group to private and even ones that offer you to stay over on the complex! I decided to take a group tour from Kiev that was run by a company called East Solo Travel. They had great reviews online and their itinerary covered all the areas that I wanted to see. You can check it out here.
The day began by being picked up on Independence Square at 8 am sharp. It takes two hours to reach Chernobyl by car and the exclusion zone is actually split half in Ukraine and half in Belarus. The car journey passed pretty quickly as videos were played about the explosion and the history of the abandoned town of Pripyat.
Around 10 am we arrived at the first checkpoint, just before the 30km exclusion zone. If it’s not already included in your tour cost, you’ll need to take 10USD or 250UAH for compulsory medical insurance. You’ll also need to bring your passport along with you as you won’t be allowed in without it.
Once we passed the first checkpoint, our first stop was at the town of Chernobyl. This area is still very much open for business. Around 2,500 people still work on the power plant and live here. They tend to work 15 days on, 15 days off in order to avoid getting too much radiation. The town still has a fully operating fire station, police station, supermarket, cafè and numerous hostels.
After a couple of hours wandering around the town, we had a quick lunch in one of the hostels nearby and then headed off to the second security checkpoint.
This checkpoint was located at the 10km boundary around the reactor and again, required us to all get out of the car and go through a passport control style building.
The next stop took us to the old kindergarten. Probably one of the most photographed areas of Chernobyl, it’s empty cots and destroyed books have become the icon of the area. Now's probably a good time to say that a lot of the areas that you visit aren’t as authentic as they seem. Tourism in the area is still very low (around 100 people per day) but there have been a lot of photographers that have visited which has let to them bringing props such as children’s dolls in order to take more dramatic photos. The majority of the original items have been looted in the years since the event.
Following this, we went to the main rector site. There are four full built reactors on the Chernobyl site, with two more half built and another one in the early planning stages. Reactor four was the one that blew up due to the rod and cooling system malfunctioning.
Only a couple of years ago, getting this close to the reactor would’ve been impossible and highly dangerous. However, due to the new sarcophagus, it’s now safe to get within 200m of it. The new structure fully seals the reactor in and prevents any further radioactive leakage. The aim for the workers now is to use the robots inside to dismantle the reactor so that one day, when this building decays, the area will be (reasonably) safe. The reading from our Geiger counters were at around 1 which is no more radiation than you’d get on an international flight.
The highlight of the tour for me was undoubtedly the time we spent in the abandoned town of Pripyat. This new generation town was built especially for the workers at the power plant and offered the best living conditions that the Soviet Union had at the time. The area was highly affluent and only the most skilled workers lived there.
Walking around the complex is here and in a lot of ways upsetting. Here, more so than anywhere else, you get a real feeling of what people lost in the days following the explosion. Following the evacuation, people were told that they’d only be gone for a few days so they only took their essentials. This meant that they left valuables such as jewellery and gold, as well as personal items such as photographs. Due to this, many people from surrounding areas risked the radiation and raided many of the buildings in search for these values which has let to the town being destroyed. Officially, no tour groups are allowed in any of the buildings. However, pretty much all of the tour guides will allow you to as long as you stick to the main rooms and don't wander off on your own.
The highlights of the town are the supermarket, which was the first in the Soviet Union (another indication of the wealth of the town), the swimming pool, basketball court and of course the amusement park with the famous ferris wheel. The town is also home to the 'White House' where the director of the plant lived. No one is entirely sure what happened o. the night of the accident but the director did get a ten-year jail sentence in Siberia following it.
Walking around Pripyat, it feels like a scene out of ‘I Am Legend’. Where nature has taken back control of the landscape. There are plants and trees growing just about everywhere, leaving certain areas such as the running track and stadium unrecognisable when strolling through.
Another highlight of the town is the old school and living apartments. The school is home to the famous gas masks room.
These gas masks were given to every child in the town not in case of a nuclear disaster such as the one that happened but in case of an attack from the USA. Despite having a nuclear plant so close, no one had any idea of the dangers involved and what to do in case of an explosion. This resulted in none of the gas masks being used following the incident.
There were four blocks of apartments in the small town that housed all of the workers on the plant. Nearly 40 years on, pretty much all of the apartments are still the same as they were left. There are washing machines, beds and wallpaper that all litter the buildings.
The final stop of the trip was to the ‘secret’ Soviet spy tower. Located around a 20-minute drive from Pripyat, the metal structure stands 150m high. At the time of the explosion it had only been operational for a year and was designed to detect any missiles sent by the USA 20-25 minutes before they reached the Soviet Union.
The drive towards the facility goes through an area called ‘red forest’. This is the most dangerous area in the whole 30km exclusion zone. Following the explosion, the authorities tried to clear the radioactive dust from the area in an attempt to bring everyone back one day. To do this, they removed 1m of soil from everywhere and dumped it here which let to the plants getting radioactive poisoning, giving them red leaves showing that they’re dying (as they do in Autumn).
Upon leaving the exclusion zone, you're required to go back through the checkpoints. This time, however, you have to go through one of the Ukrainian radiation scanners. These are claimed to be one of a kind machines that only the people on Chernobyl have been able to build. They require you to stand under a tunnel and place your hands on the side while it checks you're not radioactive. I have to say they've put a lot of effort into making these look as authentic as possible but the technology seemed very questionable and it seemed more like a deterrent to stop people stealing artefacts from the zone.
For anyone considering visiting, I can't recommend it enough. The trip was one of the most interesting sites I've ever been to and its rare that you can go anywhere now without being met with hundreds of other tourists so be sure to get there quick to avoid the crowds that will inevitably form in coming years. If you've got more time to spare I'd definitely recommend taking a two or three-day tour around the site as there's just so much to see and learn about.