Lisa Owen

Hands down the journey to the abandoned town of Pripyat in Ukraine’s central north was the best tour I’ve ever been on.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

While the subject matter is dark and very sad, the content of the tour is fascinating. You don’t just journey to an abandoned town shattered by a disaster, but you learn about the events leading up to it and the response. This is what makes this tour the best I’ve been on. You are immersed in the history and then you stand where it took place and it feels like time has stood still for 30 years. You may not have heard of Pripyat but I’m sure you’ve heard of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster – even if you weren’t born when it happened (I was only two years old at the time). In the early hours of 26 April 1986, the plant’s Reactor 4 exploded sending a radiation cloud over Pripyat and north across what was then the USSR, and up to Scandinavia. For Pripyat, it was devastating. Pripyat was home to many plant workers and their families. It was a bustling town that was established in 1970 at the same time as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

In the days after the explosion, the town was evacuated due to the deadly levels of radiation. People were told they were evacuating and three hours later, the town was emptied out. People were told to grab personal items for a few days, and it was expected they would return to the Pripyat in later days or weeks.
30 years on, the town remains abandoned. But Pripyat wasn’t the own town abandoned in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. In fact, 96 towns and villages were abandoned in Ukraine, while 92 towns and villages were abandoned in the adjacent country of Belarus, north of Ukraine. Pripyat is the most famous because of its size, proximity to the plant and because it was home to many of the plant workers. Today, radiation levels are low enough that day tours are run from the Ukrainian capital Kiev to explore Pripyat, and see the sarcophagus over Reactor 4.

Into the Exclusion Zone

Exclusion Zone

Full day Chernobyl tours take you into the 30km exclusion zone around the now defunct power plant. There’s an exclusion zone as radiation is still present in the area. But first some facts about the radiation levels at Chernobyl – and in your daily life. The fact is we are all exposed to very low levels of radiation every day, and normal activities such as flying exposes us to radiation. Average radiation levels in Kiev is around 0.14 sieverts per hour. When my tour departed Kiev, radiation levels were measured at 0.13 sieverts per hour on the Geiger counter. In comparison, San Francisco for example, experiences an average of 0.21 sieverts per hour. During a flight, you experience up to 8.0 sieverts an hour. A dental X-ray exposes you to 5.0 sieverts, a chest CT scan 7. If you stand right in front of the sarcophagus over Reactor 4, the Geiger counters record an average of 3.50 sieverts per hour. The average dose of radiation received during a day trip to Chernobyl is 2.2 sieverts. This is equal to a one hour flight. I did my research before I went and the information provided on the day of the tour confirmed it, that you receive a higher radiation dose with an X-Ray so I was very comfortable going to Chernobyl – and did not return radioactive!

Pripyat in Ukraine

The tour starts at 8.30am with a two hour drive to Pripyat. You have to pass through two checkpoints manned by military personnel to get there. The Dityatki checkpoint is at the start of the 30km exclusion zone around the power plant, while the Leliv checkpoint is 10km from the plant. During the drive, engaging documentaries tell the story about the explosion, the evacuation of Pripyat, the response to put out the fire in the reactor, and the process involved in sealing up the reactor. The first stop is at the main square of Pripyat. To my left was the supermarket, but mostly we are surrounded by forest which has now taken over the city.

Chernobyl tour

We walk through the forest onto the cinema complex, walking up bare staircases into rooms filled with debris and shards of glass. In the aftermath of the Pripyat evacuation, the town was looted for useful items such as radiators and aluminium from window frames. The glass was smashed out from many windows and lies scattered across the ground, crunching underfoot with every step.

Chernobyl tour

After the cinema, we head to the amusement park. The town’s amusement park and sports stadium were actually never used. They were due to be officially opened for the town’s planned May Day celebrations, but now the yellow ferris wheel stands rotting and the dodgem cars sit haphazard. The stadium ground has been overtaken by the forest, but you can just make out the running track.

Chernobyl tour

From there, we headed to the kindergarten, filled with discarded dolls and wooden children’s beds. Then we climbed up 15 floors inside one of Prypiat’s tallest apartment buildings. You see the layout of the apartments, which now lay bare of any personal effects but contain items like lounge suites and cabinets. The stairs are stripped of railings. You can see from there how the forest has overtaken the town, and not far away lies the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. You can clearly make out the sarcophagus that is currently being built over Reactor 4 to seal in the radiation replacing the previous sarcophagus put in place in the months after the explosion. We then head to the gymnasium and swimming pool complex. The swimming pool was still used by workers at the nuclear power plant until 2001 at which time the plant was completely closed down.

Chernobyl tour

The adjacent primary school is three floors of scattered desks, propaganda posters, and rooms littered with children’s gas masks.

Chernobyl tour

 The hospital is one of the creepier places on the tour. It was the first hospital which received the first casualties of the disaster. The hospital is littered with medicinal containers and several items of medical equipment.

Chernobyl tour

Along the way our guide Igor provides details of the buildings we enter and what life was like in Pripyat before the disaster. The town was mainly populated with families, with more than 1000 babies born each year and there are many schools and kindergartens throughout the town. Also included in the Chernobyl tours is a look at a former Soviet military radar which was part of the Soviet early warning system. I bought my tour via Dream House Hostel where I stayed during my time in Kiev and I paid ahead of time through their secure booking system.

Things You Should Know:

  • There are several tour companies based in Kiev offering day trips to Chernobyl. You need to provide your passport details when booking the tour. This is provided to the checkpoints ahead of time to ensure you are granted access to the exclusion zone. You need to bring your passport with you on the tour for military personnel to crosscheck against their manifest.
  • Book the Chernobyl tour at least 10 days ahead of your desired date to ensure a place and the cheapest price.
  • Dress code for the tour is enclosed shoes, pants and long sleeved shirt. No T-shirts or shorts are allowed. Do not sit on the ground when taking photos and avoid touching any items at Pripyat such as dolls or gas masks.
  • The average dose of radiation received during a tour is 2.2 sieverts. This is less than an X-Ray.
  • You are required to pass through radiation control machines at the two checkpoints after your tour to ensure radiation levels on your clothing and shoes are within safe levels. If not, you will be required to wash or leave behind any items that don’t pass the test. It is rare for anyone to not pass this test.

 

Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 40 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.

 

We use cookies to provide you with a better service. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or find out how to manage cookies.