Ukraine has been a great country to travel through, Lviv, Kiev and Odessa all offered completely different experiences, but there’s one last stop which promised to outdo them all. Chernobyl.
A quick history lesson for you guys. On April 26th 1986 reactor number 4 in the Chernobyl power plant exploded, spilling huge amounts of nuclear radiation through the region, especially to the town of Prypiat next to the plant. 350,000 people were evacuated, with the Soviet government telling them “don’t worry, leave your stuff, we’ll be back in 3 days”, they never went back and it’s still not safe to live in today.
Up to 500,000 people have been reported to have died from radiation-induced cancers since then, the city of Prypiat has been a ghost city ever since, with people’s belongings still strewn throughout the area. With the correct permits, it’s possible to visit Pypiat, and although it’s not cheap, and involves some paperwork, it’s a truly remarkable place to visit as a backpacker.
You have to go on an officially recognized tour, through which you get your permits issues. Most tours are day trips from Kiev, but I wanted to do something cooler. I organized my tour through my friends at CHERNOBYLwel. These guys organize it so you can actually sleep in Chernobyl! Their founder, Dom, is an awesome guy who bends the rules everywhere possible to get you the best experience imaginable.
On Day 1 I was picked up from the train station and driven to Chernobyl, about 2 hours from Kiev. Check into one of the two hotels in Chernobyl and off we go to Prypiat, the abandoned ghost town. Former population 50,000, current population 0.
Walking around the city is like something from a zombie movie. Old kindergarten schools that were hastily left now are empty with cast iron and wire beds still in place, with old teddy bears and plastic dolls.
You can see the Olympic pool, and the basketball court. The bus station, hotels and supermarkets. All left so hurriedly, with shopping trolleys still in their place. Officially it’s now illegal to enter the buildings but Dom, being the great guy that he is, would often be talking to the official guide giving us opportunities to go where we wouldn’t be seen, if you catch my drift.
Running through the old theatre, sitting in the stands in the stadium – it was all so crazy. We had Geiger counters and they would sporadically go mental when we came to a radiation hotspot. We were told to avoid vegetation where we could as they absorb more radiation than inanimate objects.
After a few hours in Prypiat, we went for some food– before which we had to be scanned to test our radiation levels. Then a quick trip to see Reactor 4, the perpetrator in all of this. It has since been covered up with layers and layers on concrete to keep the remaining radiation locked away, there are plans afoot to increase the ‘shell’ further still.
In the evening we all had a few beers, chatted about the day and hit the sack. On day 2, we wouldn’t be returning to Prypiat which was disappointing, but they don’t want to expose us to more radiation that then have to. Instead we go to a nearby village which had also been evacuated however it’s now outside the zone of alienation, therefore people can live there.
We met an old couple who had lived through the disaster, were removed and then they returned at the first available moment, and they’ve been there ever since. It was great chatting to them about their experiences and although it sounds like a horror movie to us, for them it was just life.
The rest of the second day is taken up with memorials, some old towns etc and then we headed back to Kiev. I’m not a huge fan of tours at all, but this was something really unique, and something that I’d be happy to pay for again (250 Euro/$310). If you guys are interested, drop Dom a line at CHERNOBYLwel, he’s the best in the business. Happy travels!