Ryan and Laura play with kittens after our tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Although they were incredibly cute, we did not take them home as souvenirs.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, July 2007
Since the Ukrainian government recently announced that the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl disaster site will be open for tours beginning in 2011, interest in touring the region has exploded (along with traffic to my blog). Media reports have been rather erroneous, however, as private companies have actually been leading tours of the exclusion zone for many years. I traveled there in 2007 and since then I have received a substantial number of emails from people who are interested in making the trip themselves. I’ve been meaning to put together a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page to address most of the common questions but have kept putting it off. Well, no longer…here is the list of frequently asked questions posed to me by readers, and my answers.
How did you get there?
As strange as it sounds, a Chernobyl tour was actually quite easy to arrange. We booked our tour through the travel agency SoloEast. You have to let them know ahead of time so that they can submit your details (i.e., passport number) to the Ukrainian government for clearance. Also, if you do this far enough ahead of time there is an opportunity for others interested in touring on that day to sign up for your tour, which will lower the cost. SoloEast will pick you up in Kiev and take you to Chernobyl, and then bring you back to Kiev. Yes, it’s really that easy.
Another option you might want to consider is taking one of the tours that is led by former Pripyat residents. I’d really like to visit Chernobyl again, and if I were to return to Ukraine, I would definitely look into doing this. You can find out tour dates and more info at chernobylzone.com.
Amusement park in Pripyat, a city of 50,000 abandoned shortly after the Chernobyl disaster
How much was the tour?
At the time we went, our tour cost approximately $115 per person. Prices have risen over the years, however. A solo tour will cost you $490, but if you round up a few others the price drops to $100-205 depending on the number of participants.
Soviet crest atop a Pripyat apartment building
Where do you go? What do you see?
Everywhere. A lot. You’ll visit the Memorial to the Liquidators who literally saved the world. You’ll visit Kopachi, a village so contaminated with radiation that the government bulldozed it and buried its remains. All that remains of it are mounds of dirt skewered by the occasional radiation sign. You’ll stand 100 meters from the infamous reactor #4, where the explosion occurred, and feed the giant catfish in the nearby cooling pond. The highlight of the tour is Pripyat, a city that 50,000 residents called home until they were evacuated following the explosion at reactor #4. Today, Pripyat remains as a Soviet city frozen in time, visited by curious tour groups, vandals, and looters. You’ll visit the graveyard of ships and a collection of vehicles that were used in the cleanup of Chernobyl. And then you will be provided with a hearty lunch back at the Chornobylinterinform office.
Where do you fly to?
Boryspil International Airport (KBP) in Kiev. If you go in the summer (I went in July 2007), like I did, roundtrip to Kiev from the USA will run about $1000+. If you’re coming from Europe, or going to Kiev in the winter, it will be substantially cheaper.
Where do you stay?
SoloEast now gives you the option of spending a night at a hotel within the exclusion zone area itself (it is primarily for visiting scientists and researchers) so you can ask them about that. But in general since tours are only for a day you will stay in Kiev, which is 2.5 hours from the zone. As for accommodation in Kiev, skip the overpriced hotels and rent an apartment. We used KievApts.com and rented a place in the city center near Independence Square. Can’t beat that location. KievApts will also arrange to pick you up at the airport if you’d like.
You know you want to stay in an apartment that features this bedspread!
Is it safe to visit Chernobyl? Were there any protective measures?
Is it safe? Well, they say it is, and obviously it wasn’t a huge concern of mine, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. One of my friends used to work in the nuclear industry and thought I was nuts for going there, though. There are a lot of rules you have to follow there and they go over them once you get to the zone (i.e, stick to the asphalt and don’t step on the radioactive moss). When you book your tour, SoloEast will advise you of the proper clothing and shoes to wear, but other than that, you won’t be walking around the zone in white suits. At the end of the tour, you’ll pass through a checkpoint that will scan you for any stray radioactive particles you might have picked up. Our group cleared the checkpoint with no problems, but if you don’t then you might be subject to a chemical shower.
Was the tour in English?
Do they speak English in Ukraine?
From my own experience, many of the younger Ukrainians spoke English. I speak horrible Russian and managed quite well over there, but I think you will be fine if you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. Just think of it as an adventure. I would recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet if you are not already familiar with it because all street/metro signs in Kiev are in Cyrillic. It’s not that hard and will only take a few hours to master it. Trust me.
If you have any further questions that haven’t been addressed here, shoot me an e-mail or leave them in the comments section and I will answer them.
Yesterday, news outlets reported that you would be allowed to tour the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant beginning in 2011. I was a bit surprised by this, considering I had done just that in 2006. According to the Ukrainian government, however, the tour I went on was “illegal” and a “threat to my safety”. If that was the case then, I have to wonder how our bus got through Checkpoint “Dytyatky” (as seen in the above photo), the entrance to the 30km exclusion zone, which was staffed by Ukrainian soldiers who checked our passports against a list of names they had been given. That doesn’t sound too illegal to me…
This abandoned building was a restaurant until the city of Pripyat was evacuated following the accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The sign on top of the building, which reads PECTOPAH in Cyrillic, means “restoran” in Ukrainian and Russian (and “restaurant” in English).
In the city of Chernobyl there stands a simple memorial to the liquidators who rushed to reactor number four in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. The firefighters who initially responded to the disaster on the morning of April 26, 1986 were unaware that they were entering a radioactive environment, and rushed to the plant without donning protective suits and respirators. While they labored to extinguish the fires, their bodies absorbed lethal doses of radiation, and many of them later died of Acute Radiation Sickness. Overall, some 600,000 workers, including scientists, miners, and Soviet military conscripts, participated in the Chernobyl cleanup efforts. To this day, many of them continue to experience a variety of health problems stemming from their time spent in the zone. The plaque on the monument is inscribed “To those who saved the world.”
Interview with Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz on his experience as a kid living in Ukraine during the Chernobyl accident. I’m seeing Gogol at the 9:30 Club in a few weeks and can’t wait. One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen was their show at Coachella in ’07.
The Battle of Chernobyl is by far the best documentary I’ve seen on the disaster and ensuing cleanup. This documentary contains a lot of footage that’s never been shown before, including scenes of the poor liquidators forced to stitch together their own “anti-radiation” suits and then shovel radioactive debris off the roof of the reactor. I originally saw The Battle of Chernobyl on the Discovery Times Channel a few years ago, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was uploaded to Google Video. If you have any interest in the subject, I’d highly recommend watching this documentary. The 90 minutes is well worth it.