“Are you ready to go to the ghost city of Pripyat and die a painless death from radiation?”
These were, more or less, the first words that greeted us on a beautiful July 4th morning. Most Americans spend their Independence Day holiday grilling burgers and dogs, drinking beer, eating CostCo sheetcakes that resemble American flags, and watching massive fireworks displays. Ryan, Laura, and I spent ours in Chernobyl.
The man who asked us if we were prepared to die was Sergei of SoloEast, a Kiev-based company that organizes tours to Chernobyl. He directed us towards a purple-striped bus filled with ten or so other passengers of various nationalities and joked that the bus shouldn’t be allowed out of the exclusion zone due to all the time it has spent shuttling tourists to and from the most radioactive area on earth. Turning a bit more serious, he instructed us not to enter any of the buildings in Pripyat due to safety issues. “You do not bring back any souvenirs,” he warned us. “Really, there are no souvenirs from Chernobyl.” And with those parting words, we were headed to the exclusion zone, while Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” played over the radio.
I was only 3 (almost 4) when the disaster at Chernobyl occurred on April 26, 1986. As such, I don’t remember any of it. In the years that followed, I flipped through the pages of National Geographic, with its heartbreaking photos of Ukrainian and Belorussian children who were affected by the disaster. In my college classes, the Chernobyl disaster was always cited in the context of its political fallout, as a true test of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. I was incredibly fascinated by this particular historical event and its impact on Soviet politics and the use of nuclear energy, but to seriously consider visiting the area? I didn’t even imagine that it was a possibility.
And then, in 2004, Elena Filatova published her sensational kiddofspeed website (as it turns out however, Elena didn’t actually ride her Kawasaki Ninja through the exclusion zone. Rather, she took the exact same tour as I did, but brought along a helmet and leather jacket as props for her photos. Since I don’t have quite the imagination as she does, I’ll merely relate the unvarnished, albeit slightly more boring, truth of touring Chernobyl as a tourist). Soon thereafter, journalists started making the trek to the exclusion zone, reporting on these insane tourists who voluntarily chose to visit the radioactive wasteland surrounding Chernobyl. It was the new destination in “extreme tourism”. I was hooked. I had to go. The only problem was, I had trouble finding someone to go with me, as my overtures of “Hey wanna go to Ukraine and visit Chernobyl?” were usually met with “Are you fucking crazy?” by even the most adventurous of my LSE friends. About a year ago, though, Ryan and I discussed flying out to Kiev for a visit to Chernobyl. He planned a month long trip to Eastern Europe this summer, and we agreed to meet in Kiev. Laura was interested in going as well, so the three of us booked a July 4th tour through SoloEast.
The drive to Checkpoint “Dytyatky”, the entrance to the 30km exclusion zone, took about two and a half hours. Once we arrived at the checkpoint, two soldiers in blue camouflage fatigues boarded the bus, scanned the passengers, and grunted “po-russki?” Everyone remained silent until the guy sitting in front of me volunteered that he spoke Russian. Saved!
We filed off the bus and handed our passports to the guard, who checked them against a printed list of authorized visitors. After waiting for 5-10 minutes we got back on the bus and sped down a pothole filled road to the city of Chernobyl.
Passports checked, and on our way to Chernobyl
The city of Chernobyl, which the power plant takes its name from, was evacuated shortly after the 1986 disaster. These days, it’s mainly a collection of abandoned buildings, but some people still live and work there, including the zone’s administrative personnel and a handful of evacuated residents that insisted on returning to their native soil. The foliage is extremely dense, and many buildings still bear CCCP insignia. Workers in various states of military dress (the fatigues/tennis shoes combination was a popular choice) walked alongside Lenin Street, past the aboveground pipes and decaying structures.
Our first stop was Chornobylinterinform, a yellow sheetmetal building housing offices of the “Ministry of Ukraine of Emergencies and Affairs of Population Protection from the Consequences of Chornobyl Catastrophe.” We were directed into a dimly lit room decorated with various maps of radiation fallout and photographs of the Chernobyl cleanup efforts.
It was here that we met our guide, an aloof young fellow sporting aviator sunglasses and dressed in an army fatigue jacket with a film badge dosimeter clipped to the front pocket. He never introduced himself (or if he did, I didn’t catch it), and during the five hours we spent with him, the only information he volunteered was that he had been working at his present job for a year and a half. He also lit a cigarette every time we stepped off the bus.
He proceeded to pick up a long stick and point to the maps and photographs on the walls, mumbling something about radiation, fallout, and evacuations. I suppose this was our “briefing”, although, to be quite honest I had spent so many hours reading about the place that I wasn’t sure there was really anything he could say that I hadn’t heard before. Except maybe a safety briefing, that is.
In the past year and a half, I’ve toured several industrial type facilities while on work-related trips. On these visits you always sit through a thorough safety briefing, and are usually issued a hardhat and eye protection. Apparently, the Chernobyl equivalent of a safety briefing includes the following:
1. Briefly scanning everyone’s feet to make they had left their flip flops back in Kiev and were wearing proper footwear.
2. “Stay on the asphalt. Do not go on the dirt. It is for your own safety.”
3. Getting on the bus with a loaf of bread, but no sort of Geiger counter or dosimeter tool to measure radiation (Maybe he forgot to charge it?)
4. Uh, that’s it.
By OSHA standards, we were about to embark on the equivalent of a health and safety nightmare.
Read more about the tour:
2. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
3. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?