I rose fairly early today to make sure I was ready for our departure to Chernobyl. One of my bad habits when travelling on a trip where I use my normal suitcase rather than my 65 litre rucksack is that I still live out of the bag – and since it only has one compartment everything gets messed up and whatever packing system I had in place fails and I can never find anything. This doesn’t happen when I overland and use my rucksack but meant that this morning I had to repack everything so that it would be where I needed it to be when we arrived at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Luckily there was still time for a quick breakfast before it was time to meet the group in the lobby.
After leaving our hotel we made a quick stop at the offices of Regent’s local partner so that they could check our documents and tell us the rules for the next couple of days. The rules were simple – wear long sleeves, follow the instructions of the guide and don’t leave the hotel without an escort or you’ll be arrested by the military. That last rule may sound harsh but it’s for your own safety – there are still a few hotspots around in the area and probably a few things we’re not allowed to see. Although as we found out by the end of the day there’s not much to do after hours in the zone anyway!
Then it was back into the minibus for the two hour trip to the zone. The minibus we have for the Chernobyl portion of our trip is smaller than the one we had yesterday, which meant it was a bit cramped on the journey from Kiev, but the rest of the day was fine as there were plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch our legs. During the journey we watched a Discovery Channel documentary about the Chernobyl disaster which helped to pass the time and gave us some interesting facts about the disaster and the recovery process. One fact which stuck in my mind particularly is that reservists were drafted in from all over the Soviet Union to help with the cleanup process. They were required to make their own radiation suits and to manually throw radioactive material from the top of the Reactor 3 / 4 complex as the robots they planned to use kept failing. The reservists could only spend a maximum of a minute doing so before being sent home after receiving a dose of radiation as large as most people will receive during their entire life! I guess we should all be very thankful for the bravery they showed helping to clean up – once the Soviet Union admitted there was a problem.
After arriving at the zone we were greeted by our guide from the Ministry of Emergencies who would be with us for the entire time in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. We also had to have our passports checked by the military to ensure that our documents matched what was on our permit before we would be allowed into the zone. The whole process was smoother than I thought it would be, although I’m usually pleasantly surprised how smooth things go in places you would expect delays. A few years ago in North Korea we took less time to go through passport control than I have done when returning to the UK on occasions for example. Although back to Chernobyl one thing that did make us all laugh was the sight of one of the soldiers guarding the entrance to the zone wearing a Greenpeace sponsored “Hard Rock Cafe : Chernobyl” T-Shirt. We saw them back in the hotel in Kiev and I might have to buy one in a couple of days when we’re back.
We were due to drop our bags at the hotel and have lunch before heading further into the zone but we were early enough to be able to explore some sights on the way. I use the term sights loosely as Chernobyl is far from being a tourist destination – this is a real disaster zone as you’ll see from my photos but it’s a place that I felt I had to visit to see the struggle of man vs physics vs man vs nature. The Chernobyl disaster is something that will live on in the history of the planet for eternity and as mentioned previously in this blog it’s a place that I just felt I had to visit.
The first place we stopped was what looked like a small hamlet but our guide informed us that it was once home to several thousand people and that the track we were walking down was once a main road. You can’t tell this from how much nature has reclaimed the area and maybe this was a good place to be introduced to the zone – to see how powerful the reclamation of the zone by nature has been. We were allowed into the buildings to look around which was a pleasant surprise for us as we thought that entry to the buildings had been recently prohibited, although it was explained that it’s only in the city of Pripyat where people are officially not allowed into the buildings anymore due to an accident that happened the year before. Some of the buildings we explored included a shop and several houses an it was so moving to be able to walk around and imagine how life must have been for people living there 30 years ago. In the back room of the shop the toilet was still there and in one of the houses there was even still a bed.
There was so much to fit in we weren’t able to spend as much time in the first town as we could have but it was soon on to our next stop – the War Memorial. In every town in Ukraine it’s traditional to have a war memorial to those who have fallen in battle and Chernobyl is no different. The monument was erected during the years before Chernobyl to commemorate those lost during World War 2 and it has been carefully tended to ever since, even during the clean up process after the disaster.
After the war memorial our guide lead us down an overgrown dirt track, which it turns out used to be a two lane road, towards what she said would be a special sight. What we saw was our first example of how nature has reclaimed the area since the Chernobyl disaster as it wasn’t until we were just outside the building that we saw the massive “Palace of Culture” building that would have been a prominent feature of the town in Soviet times. The Palace of Culture was a feature of many towns at the time of the disaster and was usually a large hall where people could take part in recreational activities as well as feel like a good Soviet. It was an impressive building to walk around – the stage area was still intact although many of the floor boards had long since been taken due to safety concerns.
A quick photo opportunity next to the town sign for Chernobyl and it was time to have lunch. All of our meals during our time in the zone are to be in the staff canteen building as this is the only place where you can get food inside the zone. We were expecting to be in the main canteen with the locals, as my friends who went on the trip several years ago were, but we found out that there was a separate dining room on the first floor where we would be eating in private. Lunch was very basic but filling, and very interesting and a sign of what was to come. When we arrived the table was already set with salad and lots of cucumber and cold meat, followed quickly by soup. It was edible but not what I would call a good lunch.
Then it was time for us to check into our hotel – the Chernobyl hotel which is the only option inside the zone and which is usually occupied by scientists plus the occasional tourist. We found out upon arrival that we would be the only people staying there that night so had the entire top floor of the hotel to ourselves. The rooms we were assigned were very basic but very impressive and consisted of a room containing two single beds, a separate lounge room containing a pull-out sofa, chairs, desk, TV, refrigerator and cabinet plus a shower room and separate toilet cubicle. This is much more than I expected when I heard that the rooms would be basic and in the end my room buddy decided to just have a room each within the suite – the beds were small so he said he would rather have the pullout sofa and this suited me as it meant we both had our privacy.
There wasn’t any time to relax in the rooms as it was soon time to head to the park opposite the canteen to be shown some monuments. I can’t remember what they depicted but I seem to believe they mainly depicted old Soviet legends. We also saw a memorial pathway containing road signs to all of the towns and cities that no longer existed due to the Chernobyl disaster and it was very moving to walk along the pathway to get a sense of the scale of the disaster. It was starting to get really hot by this point, especially as we had to wear long sleeves inside the zone, so I used this time to apply sun cream.
We spent the next couple of hours looking around the zone seeing other buildings including the Soviet Party building, a nursery school, the local fire station, an exhibit of some of the robots that helped in the clean-up, the river port and also the only working church that remains inside the exclusion zone. The same theme as before was evident when we explored the buildings – that life just stopped and that mother nature is slowly reclaiming what rightfully belongs to her. Inside the Soviet Party building there were still paintings of Lenin on the wall and which was in good condition due to the foundations, contrasting the top floor which was unsafe due to the roof being in a dangerous position and the basement which had turned into a swamp filled with frogs.
The primary school we visited was particularly moving – all of the cots were still in one of the rooms, there were children’s books on the shelves and I even found a medicine cabinet containing an old syringe, tablets and other miscellaneous items. There were some thing which has obviously been put there by previous visitors, or by the clean-up crews, such as toy animals lined up by the window and dolls in the cots, but it was very moving to walk around the site to see what life was like for the children. Outside the school we were shown a radioactive hotspot where the radiation given off was in the region of 50 times greater than background – needless to say we didn’t stick around there for long!
Our next stop was the highlight of today and was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself. Whenever I travel anywhere I usually have one particular photo that I want to get in advance more than any other. In North Korea it was me straddling the DMZ, in Rwanda it was me with a Gorilla in the background and on this trip it was me with Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 in the background. Before visiting Reactor 4 we stopped at the side of the road where we could see all of the reactor buildings. Reactor 1 and 2 were next to each other in the distance, reactors 3 and 4 were in the same complex a little bit closer and just across the river from us were the unfinished buildings of reactor 5 and reactor 6. According to our guide they had planned to build a total of 10 reactors at the Chernobyl site but never finished anything beyond number 4 which is the one with the disaster. We were informed that there would be some photo restrictions while near the plant due to military operations and other restricted operations that we could not take photos of. One of these restrictions was just down the road where we visited a monument to the disaster as it was next to the working operations centre for the zone but we didn’t stay here long before being driven to just outside the perimeter of the Reactor 4 complex.
We parked up and walked up to the memorial to the people who died while tackling the disaster where we were told that there were only two directions which we were allowed to take photos – directly towards the Reactor 4 building and directly towards the area where they were building the new Sarcophagus which will cover the Reactor 3 / 4 complex when it’s finished in a couple of years. From a visitor point of view I’m glad we visited when we did as come 2015 any visitors to the zone will only see this new Sarcophagus they won’t be able to see the original building at all, however it’s long overdue from a safety point of view. There have been some recent collapses of non-essential parts of the original Sarcophagus and while no radiation has escaped it will only be a matter of time before it fails completely.
After taking our photos near the reactor we had a stopped at the town sign for Pripyat, which we will be visiting tomorrow, before making our way to the final stop of the day – an abandoned railway station with some old Soviet era diesel trains. I’m not a huge train person but it was nice to be able to walk around and take photos of the old trains and to be able to walk on the old tracks without fear that we would be run over by anything. It was then time to head to dinner.
On the way to dinner we asked if it would be possible to stop at the town store to stock up on snacks, drinks etc and we were told that this would be possible but that we would have to hurry as we were already late for dinner. Unfortunately we took quite a long time, much to the frustration of a soldier who had to wait behind us for ages to buy one item, but the lady who ran the store was incredibly happy with our custom and I’m sure we were her best customers of the day as we bought several bags worth of food, drink and general items which were confusingly handed to us in Sainsbury’s plastic bags. The delay, however, seemed to anger the cook at the canteen who was stood at the top of the steps with her arms folded looking very angry when we arrived. Tip – don’t be late for dinner at Chernobyl! Dinner was much of the same – lots of cucumber broken up with random things I couldn’t quite identify but it tasted nice and filled a gap.
The evening at the hotel consisted of a group social in our room as there wasn’t much else we could do. We weren’t allowed out of the hotel complex and even the doors to the hotel were locked preventing us from leaving after a set time and wouldn’t be opened again until the morning except in an emergency. However this wasn’t too bad as it’s a good group. We spent a couple of hours chatting, eating snacks, drinking random things and watching cheap Ukrainian dramas on TV and I had a great time getting to know the others – especially their shared love of buying tat.
I’m in my part of the suite now as I’m tired and need to catch up on my travel blog notes but it sounds like the others are having a good evening in the lounge area! Let’s hope they’re all awake in the morning as it’ll be a long day.