We visit a 1980s Soviet time warp
We arrived at the Chernobyl 30 km exclusion zone checkpoint after about 2 hours in the minivan from Kiev, watching documentary videos about the Chernobyl disaster. Here, the paperwork was checked by Ukrainian soldiers, which gave us a chance to stretch our legs.
This is a bit of a formality and we were quickly on our way again. From here on in, signs of life became increasingly scarce. Some folks can live within the 30km zone, but they need to spend a certain amount of time outside the zone per year in order to decontaminate.
On the way in, there is a second checkpoint at the 10km exclusion zone. This is also fairly pedestrian and is basically a paperwork check between the tour company and the soldiers. No one lives within the 10km exclusion zone – the levels of radiation are still potentially dangerous with extended periods of exposure. There is one restaurant that operates inside the 10km zone, but all of the food and produce are brought in every day from outside. This caters mainly to the tourists who visit Chernobyl in increasing numbers each year.
Once we were inside the 10 km zone, the driver stopped the vehicle on a stretch of crumbling road overgrown by trees and vines. The guide gathered us all together outside the bus and then asked us where we thought we were. He asked if we believed that we were within 10 metres from Chernobyl’s City Hall. We all felt as though we were in the middle of the jungle, miles from civilisation. So he said “follow me” and headed off down a path.
Sure enough, barely 10 metres away from the minibus we arrived at the Chernobyl Cultural Palace which was the centre of the Soviet administration during those times. It was basically a large town hall, similar to a town hall in any western country, where propaganda plays were performed to espouse the glory of the Soviet ideal. A little further along the same path were some houses, complete with Lada’s in the driveway, books on the bookshelves, cooking implements in the kitchen and all the various accouterments of day to day life just left as they were in 1986. When the population was evacuated, they were not allowed to take a single thing with them, so everything is left just as it was on that fateful day.
Back in the minibus, we made our next stop at what was perhaps the most moving site we saw on this trip – the kindergarten at Kopachi. Set slightly back from the road were the remains of building about the same size as a family home in the US or Australia. The 30 years since the disaster had seen nature reclaim it’s own and trees, weeds, grass and vines had grown through the decaying structure. We were greeted on the front porch by a children’s toy – a fluffy bunny – a stark reminder that children had been playing here on the day of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.
==> Read our blog about the background to the disaster here
We walked inside and entered one of the many rooms inside the building. This sight will stay with me for life – the sight of rows of tiny beds, now all covered in years of dust and decay, where kindergarten kids had once taken their afternoon nap. Scattered all over were children’s toys, books and clothing – just left there, as though the inhabitants had just up and left from one moment to another. Back into the bus we headed to the observation point of the new Sarcophagus. Suddenly as we were driving, all of the Geiger counters in the bus started beeping. This is really disconcerting given where we were. The counters are set to beep at 3 Millisieverts and we all had readings around 4 or 5.
Arriving at the observation point of the new Sarcophagus, you can get a good overview of the sheer size of the new structure that was slid into place in late 2017. After some quick photographs we were back into the bus to the main town square in Pripyat. This city was designed in the 1980s by the Soviets as a model town. Built around a central square, this city had significant buildings and spaces dedicated to social or community activities. It was an amazing feeling to walk around the main buildings of a city including a movie theatre, grocery shop, restaurant, community gymnasium, apartment blocks and Government buildings all deserted and left as thought their inhabitants just vanished. Cars, furniture, shopping trolleys, gym equipment – all left in place. Nothing of course could be taken from the zone, so it was all left behind.
Success in international sports was very important to the Soviet Union – it was a show of the power of the Soviet model. In Pripyat there are huge gymnasium and swimming pool facilities slowly being reclaimed by mother nature, but nonetheless, still strikingly impressive facilities. The swimming pool is not on the ground floor, but on the first floor – complete with a 3 metre diving board. There is also a huge gymnasium facility next door to the pool with multiple basketball courts again on the first floor of this gigantic building.
Perhaps the most well-known images of Chernobyl are from the community Amusement Park. The rusting dodgem cars lie forlorn and abandoned just inside the park entrance. In the centre is a large, rusting Ferris wheel. It was here that we saw the highest radiation reading. Our guide said to us “come and see this” and he walked over to the underside of one of the baskets. He placed his Geiger counter up close to a particular spot on the underneath of the basket and the counter went crazy! We all took a look at the reading on the device – it read 423! A lethal dose is 1,000, so this is a fairly decent dose. Some members of the group weren’t at all comfortable with this and they moved quickly away.
One of the amazing things about this zone is that after 30 years, Mother Nature has largely reclaimed her own. Trees, vines, bushes, grass have all regrown and overgrown the man-made structures. Animal life has returned in strength and we were able to hand-feed wild foxes who had become accustomed to the daily tourist buses.
The final stop before heading back towards Kiev, was an enormous Soviet listening post. This gigantic antenna stands 250m high and 1 km long! From here the Soviets were able to listen in to all TV, radio and satellite transmissions made by the West.
Heading back towards Kiev, we stopped once more at the 10km and 30km exclusion zone checkpoints. However, on the way out it is more than just a document check. These checkpoints contain radiation checking devices that all of us were required to pass in order to be allowed back on the bus to Kiev.
Travel Tips for Kiev and Chernobyl
Visa – make sure you print your eVisa! This might seem counter-intuitive, but they want to see a print out of your eVisa. Visit the Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs website for further information.
Hotel – Hilton Kiev. We have stayed at a lot of Hiltons over the years, but this is definitely one of the better ones. The property is updated and modern and the staff are incredibly helpful and service-oriented.
Hotel – Ibis Kiev. If you're looking for a less expensive hotel option, the Ibis Kiev city centre is a mid-priced hotel in a good location in the centre of the city. It is modern, clean and a credit to the Accor Group.
Restaurants – If you're looking for chicken Kiev in a traditional Ukrainian restaurant, try O'Panas. I wouldn't say it's the best meal you'll every have - but it is an interesting experience in the heart of Kiev!
Restaurant - The Last Barricade. This place is a lot of fun! It lies underneath Independence Square and is a little but tricky to find. Once you've found it, you need to give the secret password to the bartender and he/she will open the secret passage into the restaurant. Great food, fantastic ambiance in a unique environment.
Chernobyl Tour – Solo East Tours. We visited Chernobyl with Solo East Tours. They were extremely professional and knowledgeable.
Make sure you wear clothes that you are happy leaving behind in Chernobyl if you fail the radiation checks on the way out. They will not let you bring anything contaminated out of the exclusion zones.
Lynn and Andrew Mitchell are 50-something travellers who enjoy travelling in comfort through some pretty interesting places. We started Einhorn Travel Accessories because of our passion for travelling the world, seeing amazing things and enjoying unique experiences together. We believe our extensive travel gives us a unique perspective, and we understand how important it is to have the right gear. We source travel accessories from around the world and offer them on one site. We would really appreciate you visiting our store and making a purchase or two.
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Travel date: 20 July 2018