Broken glass crackled and crunched beneath my feet. Sun streamed through the remains of a once-magnificent stained glass window. Broken dolls and filthy baby shoes littered the floor. A child’s storybook stood open as if waiting for its reader to continue. Never would I have imagined that Ukraine‘s Chernobyl tours, the site of the worst nuclear meltdown in human history, would become a dark tourism attraction.
Pripyat, once the darling of the Soviet Union, is now in a state of abandon shambles. In its heyday, the average income in this model town was 40% higher than in the rest of Ukraine. Now called “the Exclusion Zone,” the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is open to visitors on a highly restricted basis.
Touring the Chernobyl disaster site with JayWay Travel went well beyond my expectations. Walking through the ghost town, frozen in a tragic space-time continuum, was eerie, heart-wrenching, and fascinating.
1. What is Dark Tourism?
Dark Tourism is the name given to places or travel experiences that people visit because of a strong sense of curiosity or quest for learning. Dark tourism sites are places were tragedy and suffering took place. Depending on the background and attitudes of each individual visitor, these sites tend to evoke intense emotions such as horror, sorrow, anger, and nostalgia. Some examples are the Roman Colosseum, Chernobyl, and Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
2. Where is Chernobyl?
Chernobyl is about two hours north of Kiev, along a narrow two-lane road. You won’t see a lot of traffic along this route, but instead, as you emerge from the city, you’ll begin to see fields upon fields of sunflowers. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading producers of sunflower oil. Our JayWay driver was very patient and indulged us when we asked to stop for frolic and photos in the infinite sea of yellow.
The two hours went by swiftly. Our van was outfitted with a screen and we watched a fascinating documentary about the history of the disaster which was both informative and horrifying but prepared us for what we were about to see.
3. How Did the Chernobyl Disaster Happen?
It’s highly technical, and I’m not a scientist or engineer, but here is my understanding…
On April 26, 1986, engineers at Chernobyl ran an experiment to determine if the turbines in the steam plant would provide power in the event of a station blackout power failure and the backup generators were started. The test required that the safety devices in the RBMK reactor be manually deactivated so that the unstable reactor wouldn’t try to shut itself down.
They were in the process of testing when the power levels started to increase causing uncontrolled reactor conditions. The reactor tried to protect itself by shutting down, but the engineers had manually blocked out the safety devices. Subsequently, Nuclear Reactor No. 4 blew up and melted down.
A massive amount of nuclear fallout was released into the European atmosphere immediately following the catastrophe. But, incredibly, the Soviet Union drew the Iron Curtain tight around its toxic secret, allegedly because President Mikhail Gorbachev feared it would not fare well for the glasnost and perestroika political and economic reforms.
Sweden, monitoring their own air quality on April 28, two days after the incident, detected radioactive particles at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, 680 miles from the accident site. They set in motion the inquiries that something bad had happened in Eastern Europe and it was then that the nuclear meltdown was discovered.
Radioactive material precipitated onto parts of the western USSR and Europe. Belarus was the hardest hit, with an estimated 70 percent of the fallout descending there, contaminating approximately one-quarter of the country. Scandinavia, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, France and the UK were also hit by the toxic fallout.
The nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl plant disaster was 400 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb, making it the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind.
4. Are Chernobyl Tours Safe?
Inevitably, the first question potential tourists asks is “is the Chernobyl site still dangerous?” So, exactly how safe are Chernobyl tours?
Radiation lasts a very long time, and Chernobyl is not expected to be safe for habitation for around 20,000 years. But in small doses, similar to an x-ray, radioactivity is generally considered harmless to human. The day tours into the Exclusion Zone expose visitors to low levels of radiation for just a few hours, “about the same as your transatlantic flight from the U.S. to Ukraine,” our guide, Nazar, told us.
To make a personal judgment on whether the radiation levels at Chernobyl are safe for you, it’s advisable to do a comparison to other known daily sources and go from there.
During a typical 3-hour tour, tourists receive less than one microsievert of radiation. The dose of gamma irradiation I received during my day trip to the Chernobyl is roughly equal to the I dose received during my two days in Kiev, or other big cities I’ve visited like London or New York, and similar to the radiation I was exposed to on the long haul plane flight from New York to Ukraine.
There are thousands of people who work in and around the nuclear power plant. They manage their exposure to radiation by avoiding or limiting time in the high-hazard areas, as well as rotating workers within the zone with other staff workers. Each person works for a few days then takes 15 days off, away from the contaminated zone, to allow their bodies to process and eliminate any radiation absorption.
5. What is the Elephants Foot?
Chernobyl Reactive No. 4 is home to the Elephant’s Foot, the most toxic mass in the world. It’s a dangerous composition of molten sand, melted concrete and metal, and nuclear fuel, formed during the initial disaster. It is named for its wrinkly appearance, resembling the foot of an elephant. The “foot” is contained within the protective sarcophagus, slowly melting into the ground.
6. Restrictions for Visiting Chernobyl
Chernobyl Tours What to Wear
Visitors are advised to wear a long-sleeved shirt, jeans or pants, sturdy closed-toe shoes, socks – particularly things that you don’t like that much – I’ll explain in just a bit. The majority of the tour is outside, so depending on the weather forecast, sunscreen, raincoat, or warm jacket.
Precautions for Entering Chernobyl
The 1,000 square miles of the Exclusion Zone which covers the power plant, Pripyat, and some small villages, is off limits to the general public, but entry is permitted with a licensed tour guide. Note that your name and passport have to be submitted to the controlling Ukrainian government authorities at least 10 days in advance for review and acceptance. JayWay handled all of the details for us, e.g. researching the best tour, booking it ahead, and submitting our passport information. You must also bring your passport with you to enter at the checkpoint. No other types of identification or driver’s license are acceptable and you will be denied entry.
Chernobyl is still dynamic, with some places on the premises more dangerous than others. The guides know where these places are and also carry a radiation dosimeter – a device that measures exposure to ionizing radiation. They use the dosimeter throughout the tour to (1) maintain safety and check for hot spots, and (2) show tourists what the readings are for assurance. For example, our guide told us to avoid stepping on mossy areas as they hold onto more radiation than the pavement next to it, and then displayed the readings to confirm.
The first checkpoint is at the entrance to the 30 KM Exclusion Zone. It’s heavily guarded and tourists passports are scrutinized before being allowed to enter
Contamination Scan When Leaving
On leaving the 10 KM zone, we stopped at an old Soviet compulsory checkpoint for radiation detection. To exit, we first had to step into a radiation detector and place our hands on either side to make sure we had not picked up any radioactive material.
Do not sit or lean on anything within the Exclusion Zone. If any of your clothing registers radiation contamination, you will be permitted to leave…..without your clothing!
As traumatic as it would be to leave Chernobyl in your underwear, it would be worse (at least for me) to have your camera confiscated so do not lay your camera on the ground or any surface in the Exclusion Zone.
7. What Is It Like to Visit Chernobyl?
The Exclusion Zone
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is essentially divided into two sections.
The “Zone of Alienation” is the 30-kilometer zone that covers a 19-mile radius from Reactor No. 4. The radioactivity in the air is pretty safe there, but it’s not safe for permanent living because of the contamination in the soil and water. That hasn’t stopped about 300 residents who have refused to leave or have returned, to reclaim their homes from the forests or rampant wildlife.
The “Sealed Zone” is the 10-kilometer inner zone, just 6 miles from the reactor site and still an extremely contaminated area.
In the center, we stopped at a park with a tall sculpture of a trumpeting angel erected on the 25th anniversary of the accident. The angel was chosen because of the following bible passage (Revelation 8:10-11):
“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”
Ironically, Chernobyl is the Ukrainian word for a species of wormwood, although there is some debate about the literal translation. Still… (cue Twilight Zone music)
In the park, there’s a walking path lined with street signs, each bearing the name of one of the towns that were evacuated after the disaster.
In this part of the tour, quite by chance, we met Alexy Moskalenko, one of the police officers around during the disaster, who knew our guide and happened to be in the area.
Because the town is virtually frozen in time, there’s even a statue of Lenin, still standing in the original place.
Side roads off the center lead to long-vacant houses being reclaimed by the forest. There were some150 villages that had to be evacuated in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zones. Except for the decay, they look pretty much like they did on the day their occupants left because they were told they would be able to return in a couple of weeks. Abandoned homes, frozen in time, being swallowed up by thick, encroaching forests.
Almost 200 people currently live in the Exclusion Zone, having returned to their ancestral homes, ignoring warnings of the Ukrainian government.
Two miles away from the site is Pripyat, once an upscale model living area, now an eerie ghost town. Built in 1970 to house those working at the nuclear plant, it was considered luxurious and advanced for its time. The average age of the 50,000 residents was 26 and the average income was 40% higher than the rest of present-day Ukraine.
Ever so proud of Pripyat, the Soviets were planning to use it as a model for additional, similar projects. Sadly, the once prosperous town is an abandoned, contaminated wasteland. Here are some of the sites within the town.
Palace of Culture
Pripyat’s now dilapidated community center, called the Palace of Culture Energetik, is located in the city center, Lenin Square.
The center promoted propaganda while providing a place for people to enjoy recreational and artistic activities such as a cinema, theatre, library, and gymnasium.
Far and away, the kindergarten affected me the most.
Once a place where smiling, innocent faces learned their A-B-C’s has been replaced with rusting cribs standing end to end, broken toys, filthy dolls, moldy books, and tiny shoes strewn across the decrepit floors. Heartbreaking.
Pripyat Middle School No. 3
A visit to this school is another somber experience. Desks and chairs are strewn all over; filthy books and torn papers are covered with layers of grime. Yes, at times I thought “this must be staged,” but what was not staged is the scary evacuation that the children must have endured, and I could not help but wonder about their present health and fate.
Gas Mask Graveyard
A decaying cash register and a plethora of small gas masks completely cover the floor of the school cafeteria. I’ve heard the masks were used by the students in drills during the Cold War era.
Azure Swimming Pool
Now devoid of water, the diving board of the public pool holds no enthusiastic recreation-seekers. At the cavernous bottom are broken tiles along with other litter, and the sinking ceiling threatens to fall into the pit.
The Post Office
A beautiful space-age Soviet mural decorates the wall inside the abandoned Post Office. Postcards, stamps, and letters litter the floor. The post office mural was also used as the DVD image for Pink Floyd’s single “Marooned.”
The eerie sight of the Ferris wheel called “the Big Dipper” is perhaps the most iconic photo associated with Chernobyl. The park was scheduled to have its grand opening on May 1st as part of the May Day celebration.
The park never experienced the hordes of lively fun-seekers, since the disaster took place on April 26th. The giant Ferris wheel remains motionless, and the bumper cars and other rides are rusting, crumbling, and overgrown.
While the Ferris wheel may be the most recognized site in Chernobyl, Café Pripyat is certainly the most beautiful. Overlooking the shore of a lake, the ruins of the café’s stained glass windows are still so stunning they look like they’d be more at home in an art gallery than a disaster site. During its heyday, customers could climb to an observation platform in the café for a 360-degree view of the lake and area.
We had lunch at the only restaurant in Chernobyl. Food is safe to eat because all products are brought in. Nothing is grown and no products are carried out of the Exclusion Zone. We had a pre-ordered lunch – pork or vegetarian. I had the pork with potatoes and a sweet roll, and surprisingly it was pretty good.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Much to my surprise, we were allowed to get up close and personal to Reactor No. 4, where the explosion happened. A thick concrete sarcophagus was put in place in October 2017 by the European Union. It replaced the failing temporary structure installed around the reactor after the explosion. A memorial to the victims of Chernobyl stands in front of Reactor No. 4.
The Russian Woodpecker
An enormous secret antenna system called the “Duga” was built in 1975, several miles from Chernobyl. The goal was to enable spying on the USA. The Duga radar was very powerful and broadcast repetitive tapping radio bands which led to the nicknamed “the Russian Woodpecker.” The system was designed to detect missiles but there was also gossip that the signals were being used for mind control and weather experiments.
8. The Aftermath
- 28 emergency first responders died from acute radiation syndrome, including beta burns
- 237 people suffered from acute radiation sickness
- 15 patients died from thyroid cancer in the following years
- Cancer deaths caused by Chernobyl may reach a total of about 4,000
- It has been estimated that around 985,000 premature cancer deaths have as a result of radioactive contamination
- Numerous other claims to physical and mental health
9. Chernobyl Souvenirs
Do not attempt to take anything out of the Exclusion Zone. The radiation will register and you will be caught. Do you really want to risk going through the Ukrainian legal system? I got pickpocketed in Lviv, and trust me, you do not want that hassle in a foreign country – and I was the victim, not the perpetrator.
There’s a kiosk at the entry/exit where you can buy a T-shirt or other memento of your visit, but it’s your photos that will be the most poignant.
10. Why You Should Go to Chernobyl
“Why would you want to go there?” people asked me when I told them Chernobyl was part of my Ukrainian trip itinerary. Several reasons:
Dark tourism sites are a magnetic pull to adrenaline junkies.
We would never be able to visit a site like this in the U.S. Putting aside the radiation issue, just the potential possibility for injury with all the broken glass all over the floor and in the smashed windows, demolished and leaking ceilings, filth, broken steps, holes in the floors, un-railed drop-offs and other accidents waiting to happen would be impossible in a highly regulated country like the U.S. Step with caution and make sure your tetanus shot is up-to-date!
Day trip radiation levels are perfectly safe.
It’s a real-life history lesson.
As a Baby Boomer, I was a young adult when Chernobyl happened. People weren’t addicted to the 24-hour news cycle like they are today, and even if cable news had been saturated with Chernobyl, chances are I wouldn’t have been glued to it as a 20-year-old as I would be now. So I was curious to learn more about what happened during this mysterious era cloaked by the Iron Curtain.
Scientific and safety education.
Many people are like my boyfriend, who is an engineer at one of Duke Energy’s nuclear power plants and jealous fascinated to learn more about the disaster. What happened at Chernobyl and the effects on the environment has been studied and there are now many layers of safety in present-day nuclear facilities to make sure this does not happen again.
The deterioration will consume it.
Pripyat looks like a scene out of any zombie apocalypse filming site. Deterioration will only continue, and at some point, it may be closed or demolished. It’s a kind of time capsule that is destined to become a mystical memory that people will only learn about in history books (or travel blogs!).
My Take-Away from Chernoyble Tours
The Chernobyl accident is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties. Even if you have a perfunctory knowledge of Chernobyl or the disasters at Three-Mile Island or the Japanese earthquake and tsunami which triggered a similar situation at Fukushima, walking through the Exclusion Zone will give you a deeper understanding of the technicalities of the catastrophe that cannot help but emotionally affect you.
Here’s a video of Chernoble tours that you might like:
IMPORTANT! Never travel to any foreign country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her visit to Chernobyl, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.