Visiting the Exclusion Zone – a day trip to Chernobyl

At some point I’ll upload my photos of Kyiv. It’s grand in scale, packed with surprises, and fully deserves to be on your to-do list. I was lucky enough to visit twice in 2017 – once as a guest of the British Council (writing about LGBTQ+ life in Ukraine) and then shortly after for the Eurovision Song Contest.

A visit to the Ukrainian capital also presents the unusual opportunity of a day trip to Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat. Grab this chance with both hands.

I fully concede there’s an element of disaster tourism here but if you’re the kind of person motivated enough to make this journey, then I’d hope you’re also the type who’ll lose themselves for hours researching the tragedy, consuming every atom of information available out of curiosity and respect.

Me and a new mate

How do I visit Chernobyl?

It’s easier than you’d think.

Entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) is prohibited unless you have written permission from the government, so arrange a visit with a reputable tour operator who can do the groundwork for you. 

We arranged to go as a large group, and so transportation from Kyiv plus a tour guide set us back around £45 each. That also covered a strange meal at the Chernobyl canteen – a still operating restaurant in the middle of the CEZ forest (no photos or descriptions for you as I wouldn’t want to spoil the err… surprise).

Building in Pripyat

We made the 100km journey early in the morning, returning for 7ish. The drive takes about 2 hours, and if you’ve a good tour operator you’ll get to watch a documentary or two en route.

There are several official checkpoints that your guide will navigate for you – just keep quiet, have your passport ready, and don’t point your camera at the guards.

Gas mask on TV shell, Pripyat

Is Chernobyl safe?

Pripyat is considered relatively safe to visit as radiation levels have dropped considerably since April 1986 due to the decay of the short-lived isotopes released during the accident. That said, you are advised to wear long-sleeved tops, trousers and shoes, and not to wander off into the thicket for obvious reasons. Read your instructions, listen to the guide and pay attention to her Geiger counter.

Textbook in Pripyat

What did you see?

Past the check points, driving through the inner CEZ, the first thing of note you’ll see is the new sarcophagus entombing the infamous Reactor #4 where the disaster occurred.

Reactor 4, Chernobyl

Passing through this sector you’ll notice other cars and activity, and soon come to realise that lots of people work in this area. Elements of the power plants are still in use; Chernobyl is a major electricity distribution hub in northern Ukraine because the infrastructure remains in place. There are clever plans afoot to use the swathes of abandoned CEZ land to harvest solar energy which could be plugged easily into the existing grid.

Reactor 4 from a distance

The first place we visited was the kindergarten on the outskirts of the now fully buried Kopachi village, just outside of Pripyat. Many of the beds, desks, cupboards and wall charts are still intact.

Kopachi kindergarten entrance

As the area attracts more visitors (through tourism, feature filming and people basically breaking in) eerie additions have been left, such as dolls and other children’s toys – presumably to give a creepier vibe for your Instastories. It’s easy to spot what it is genuine and what has been left behind for cinematic purposes, and so I’ve tried to exclude obviously staged objects from the photos I’m sharing. The experience is harrowing enough and doesn’t need a bunch of hipster try-hards recreating Sid’s bedroom scene from Toy Story.

Kopachi kindergarten wall chart

It was May when we visited; the trees were thick with leaves and there were lots of animals around. Foxes and dogs were relatively friendly, being as they were on the scrounge for food.

Fox infront of the Pripyat sign – what a dude!

Onwards to Pripyat proper. Each building, though standing, was completely gutted and in a state of disrepair. It was too easy to lose hours and hours wandering around the corridors, eyeing the gas masks and Soviet signage, and imagining how horrific that sudden evacuation must have been.

Thirty-one people died in the first few days of world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster. Beyond that we’ll never know exactly how many more delayed deaths were caused by cancers and other diseases following the release of radioactive debris from the explosion.

Soviet sign on post

The old Azure Swimming Pool and its adjacent basketball court were impressive sights. I wasn’t aware until after the tour that the Liquidators (civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with the consequences of the disaster) still used both facilities until the late 1990s. Wikipedia has a photo from 1996 – by any standard, it looked like a really handsome swimming pool. Not so much now…

Panorama of the Azure Swimming Pool
Diving board at the Azure Swimming Pool
Panorama of the basketball court

We then made our way to the riverside cafe with its magnificent stained-glass window that has somehow avoided being completely wrecked by nature or vandals. The same can’t be said for the lopsided restaurant we saw up stream, in the distance.

Riverside cafe stained glass window
Close up of window
Slumping into the river

Beyond the cafe is, of course, the famous ferris wheel. Yellower and more graffiti-ridden than I’d imagined; nestled amongst overgrown bushes, dodgems and a couple of stripped-down merry-go-rounds.

Pripyat ferris wheel
Pripyat ferris wheel
Pripyat dodgems

By this point we’re nearing the end of our day in northern Ukraine – but there was one more site to visit.

We drove 15km south of Pripyat to see Duga AKA the Russian Woodpecker – a Soviet-era over-the-horizon radar system used as part of the Soviet anti-ballistic missile early-warning network. It got its Western name from the repetitive, sharp and powerful shortwave radio bands being emitted. The Woodpecker would disrupt legitimate broadcasts and led to all sorts of conspiracy theories during the Cold War when nobody really knew where the waves were coming from.

Duga AKA the Russian Woodpecker

It’s difficult to imagine its scale from these photographs but the Woodpecker is an utter colossus. It stands around 150 metres high and with a length of almost 500 meters. 

Carpet of circuit boards in Duga base

In addition to this there are many facilities and bunkers on site full of circuitry, mechanisms and old painted guides to identifying missiles and the like. A fascinating end to a very special day trip.

Duga base

Before leaving the CEZ you’re screened for radiation at both the 10km and 30km checkpoints.

Cheery. Radiation check point.
A bug at the last radiation check point.

Not the easiest of places to take in but a very rewarding area to visit with an utterly incredible history you’ll want to delve deeper into.

I visited Pripyat, Chernobyl on May 10 2017. I used a Nikon D3000 and iPhone 7 for the photography.

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