Chernobyl Tours and Dark Tourism in Ukraine
A crushed and broken doll, unread school books, homes taken back by nature, peeling paint on a glorious mural and a rusted amusement park; these are the images that come to my mind when someone mentions Chernobyl. April 25th marks the anniversary of the one of the most dangerous and expensive nuclear disasters in history. Tourists to Ukraine can take part in a Chernobyl tour and experience a rare opportunity visiting the disaster area. It is surely a trip you will never forget.
On that date, there were the conditions for a perfect storm. A design flaw in the reactor was coupled with a late night safety test. During the test, the security systems were turned off; an explosion and fire spewed radiation into the environment for hundreds of miles.
Chernobyl Thirty Plus Years Later
In 2016, to mark the 30th anniversary, sirens were sounded at the moment of the first explosion. Candlelit vigils were held in the nearby town of Slavutych to honor those with relatives who died. Even after so many years, the disaster was in the forefront of the hearts and minds of all of those affected.
It’s not surprising that an area categorized in the niche of Dark Tourism continues to garner attention. In fact, Chernobyl Tourism is growing at a rapid pace. Part of the increase comes from more visitors adding Ukraine to their travel plans. It’s a wonderful undiscovered country and there are many reasons to visit Ukraine now.
While traveling in Ukraine with JayWay Travel, I had the opportunity to include a visit to Chernobyl. I immediately said yes, but will admit to spending copious amounts of time on the internet to research the safety of a Chernobyl Tour.
What is Dark Tourism
So, what is dark tourism you may ask? Simply put, it’s travel to places that are connected with death or disaster. Unlike traditional travel, there are many people who want to learn more about “dark” places. For some, it’s educational, like those who travel to museums like the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia or travel to concentration camp sites like Auschwitz in Poland. For others, it’s just an interest in the macabre. They are drawn to attractions like Lenin’s dead body which is on display at Lenin’s Mausoleum at Red Square in Moscow.
Some other popular dark tourism spots are the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City, Alcatraz in San Francisco, Pearl Harbor, Pompeii and The Killing Fields of Cambodia. While the term has only recently been added to our modern lexicon, the visitation of sinister or heart wrenching sites has been around for hundreds of years. Think of all the pilgrimages people have taken to places of religious martyrdom.
Dark Tourism and Responsible Travel
The current culture of smiling selfies in inappropriate places might have you questioning whether this type of travel is ethical. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Research the Tour operator and make sure they are not just profiting from someone else’s tragedy.
- The transmission of accurate information is important. Get a feel for the tour operator from their web site. Check out their social media accounts (or a hash tag) and investigate how they present themselves.
- You will be challenged mentally, try and emotionally prepare yourself.
- Keep behavior appropriate and be respectful.
- The bottom line is intention. Make sure you are visiting for the right reasons.
Because of the catastrophic nature of the Chernobyl disaster and its environmental impact, it’s easy to see why those interested in dark tourism want to learn more at the actual site. The historic nature of the catastrophe, the ecological after-effects and the current state of our energy dependency was more than enough reason for my visit. Combined with the present-day politics between the United States and Russia, the scheduling could not have been more timely. After returning home, everyone I spoke to about my Ukraine trip was fascinated by the story and photos of the site.
Ukraine and Chernobyl Tours
Where is Chernobyl
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, ground zero for the disaster, is located in the town of Pripyat in the Northern Ukraine. Close to 65 miles from Kiev, it’s an easy, full day trip from the capital with a Chernobyl Tour. We were picked up at our luxury hotel, the Senator Apartments, and dropped off again at the end of the day. During the transport, we saw an informative video about the disaster. Narration and actual footage bring the incident into perspective and will prepare visitors for their visit.
On the drive there, the beautiful landscape gave no indication of the remnants of the disaster we were about to experience.
The Russian-Chernobyl Cover Up
Although what happened in Chernobyl is now part of history, the Russian government had initially hidden the disaster. Even when countries “downwind” from the fallout like Poland, Sweden and Denmark reported higher than normal levels of radiation and questioned Russia about it, they weren’t forthcoming.
It wasn’t until the Swedish authorities from the nuclear plant at Forsmark sounded the alarm and traced the radioactive cloud back to Chernobyl days later that the Russians finally admitted there had been an accident.
Those being evacuated were misled with false information, especially about the dangers of radiation exposure. Finally after public outcry, more information was released. There was no warning about ingesting contaminated food and drink. Thyroid cancer claimed many victims. Twenty-eight people died within a few weeks from radiation poisoning. Long term, several thousand were put at risk for cancer.
Restrictions for Visiting With Chernobyl Tours
There are restrictions if you want to visit the site and they may change, so be sure to check with your tour guide. Currently, visitors are only able to access the sight through an organized tour; Chernobyl is highly restricted. You must be at least 18 years old and certify you have no medical restrictions. Tour companies will require that you provide a complete list of passport data as they will have to obtain permission from the government for your visit.
Here are a few other safety rules when visiting inside the zone:
- You must wear long sleeved clothing and shoes that cover your feet
- You cannot eat or drink outside of the bus or structures
- You cannot drink alcohol and can only smoke at designated places
- You cannot take souvenirs originated at the Zone like debris, stones, etc.
- You cannot go inside the structures in the city of Pripyat
- Visitors can not stray from the guided Chernobyl Tour or paths
Radiation and Chernobyl Tours
I must admit, my biggest fear was the exposure to radiation. Sometimes the internet can be a curse when researching; I found a lot of mixed information. After talking to my family about the possibility (of course my kids started researching as well), we all came to the same conclusion: it sounded like there was no danger as long as you followed the rules.
Investigation revealed most people receive more radiation from X-rays at the dentist office or traveling on a transatlantic flight to Europe. In addition, I always had the choice to opt out once I got there if it felt unsafe.
Our knowledgeable guide, Nazar Vilchynskyi, constantly measured levels of radiation in every area we visited. Though Chernobyl and Fukushima were both level 7 nuclear accidents, in Japan, only about 1/10th the radiation was released into the atmosphere. The entire reactor exploded at Chernobyl sending a massive radio-active plume into the environment. There was no containment, as there was in Japan. Perhaps we did learn something from the past disaster after all.
The Town of Pripyat
Once a large town, Pripyat has been abandoned for over thirty years. It formerly had a population of over 49,000 people and busy marketplace, fairgrounds and other amenities made this a desirable place to live in the 70’s and 80’s, especially for those who worked at Chernobyl.
The city boasted schools for over 10,000 children, a hospital with 400 beds, three clinics, 27 cafes, 10 warehouses, 10 gyms, 35 playgrounds and so much more. Many of these structures still remain, but are abandoned and now governed by the Ukraine’s Minister of Emergencies.
The Exclusion Zone
The Exclusion Zone for Chernobyl has grown since the disaster. What originally started as an area of 19 miles from the radius of the plant, now encompasses approximately 1000 square miles. It is under military protection to ensure that the contamination is contained. It is still known as one of the most radioactive areas in the world.
The Amusement Park
Perhaps the most famous spot on the tour is the Amusement Park that never opened. The ferris wheel has become an iconic symbol for the disaster. It was scheduled to start operating on May 1st in celebration of May Day. As part of the cover up, the ferris wheel is said to have been running the day after the accident to assure residents that it was “business as usual.” As we approached, in the distance the crumbling ferris wheel is rusty and abandoned, an eerie reminder of the children that once called the area home.
The Azure Swimming Pool was built in 1970 and was active until 1992. Even after the accident, local workers used the pool, as it was one of the least radioactive areas. I stayed a bit too long taking photos and got separated from the rest of my group. It was then that I realized what a dangerous spot I was in. A panicked five minutes felt like much more. The thought of spending any extended period of time alone there really freaked me out.
The most heart wrenching visit was to the former kindergarten. The brick building is one of the few still standing in this area. The front door hangs by a thread. Empty child sized bed frames line a room. Littered with toys, cribs and a random shoe, the setting puts a lump in your throat. This window into a world that represents such horror was a powerful illustration of loss and sadness.
Energrtik Palace of Culture
In the Energrtik Cultural Palace concerts, parties and sport events were held. It was a former hive of activity for the residents of Pripyat. The cinema had space for 800. Now a shell stands with decaying pictures and holes in the roof. Vines climb in through the roof and hang down to the buckling wooden floor. The space is dark and shadows move across the space through holes in the ceiling where light sneaks in.
Before the accident, residents shared meals while overlooking a scenic lake, a pleasure boat slowly sinks and lists to one side down river. The torn screen blows in the breeze on a ghostly porch where upturned chairs cover shattered glass on the floor. Further inside, we walk through an area with enormous murals on the wall, paint flaking, colors still glowing with a hint of their former beauty.
Outside the building, a glass sits atop what looks like a soda machine. We learn in Russian style, it dispensed shots of vodka.
You may be surprised to find out that there is a restaurant inside the exclusion zone (and even more so to learn I actually ate lunch there) The food is grown and processed elsewhere. It was a weird but welcome pit stop on the Chernobyl Tours. Our guide had arranged a vegetarian meal in advance for me. The vegetables were fresh, mushrooms tasty. They offered a selection of a meat dish and potatoes, as well as soup, vegetables and rice.
On the Nuclear Power Point observation deck, a monument honors the liquidators who worked tirelessly to eliminate the results of the Chernobyl disaster. In the background, visitors can see the new Sarcophagus which covers the 4th reactor. Workers move in and out of the building, working on rotating shifts. No-one is ever inside for too long.
The Russian Woodpecker
Perhaps to get a deeper understanding of Chernobyl, you can not only visit the site but also hear the story told through the voice of a “radioactive” person, someone who lived through the disaster. The award-winning documentary, The Russian Woodpecker does just that. It tells the story of Fedor Alexandrovich who was four years old when he was exposed to the toxic environment and fled from his home.
This documentary also explores the Cold War Weapon, the Duga (known as the Russian Woodpecker). Alexandrovich who is searching for answers about Chernobyl becomes fascinated with the monstrosity. The constantly emitting clicking radio frequencies gave it the woodpecker name. Official maps had the woodpecker labeled as a summer camp to hide the true value of the missile detector. It was one of the last stops on my Dark Tourism Chernobyl Tour and the massive structure looked like something of Star Wars.
The Aftermath of Chernobyl
The town of Pripyat, which housed the facility has now been abandoned for years and many of those who worked there during the accident and firefighters that responded were plagued with illnesses for months and years after. It’s estimated the disaster affected over 500,000 people and cost the government 18 billion rubles (over 270 million USD). The ghost town has been deemed uninhabitable for thousands of years.
It’s hard to say what the future has in store for Chernobyl but until that sorts itself out, visitors will still continue to visit with Chernobyl Tours and see the ruins of a place that stands frozen in time. A place where the worst nuclear disaster reduced a town to a population of zero.
Would you visit Chernobyl? I felt incredibly lucky to have had this experience. Few other will have the opportunity. We were in what felt like a war zone. Broken glass was everywhere, and while I never felt in harm’s way, a site like this in the United States would never allow visitors access.
Although a few of the areas looked staged, it doesn’t take away from the somber nature and emotion of what happened that day in 1986. To imagine the dishonesty of the government and the resulting disease and deaths that followed will always stay with me.
While the area around the Exclusion Zone might be abandoned except for a few brave souls(approximately 200 people have returned to live); the ghosts of the former residents remain. Reclaimed by nature, this eerie Dark Tourism attraction holds many secrets. Visitors can find lessons about energy, truth in government and learn from the mistakes of the past from this site.
Done responsibly, dark tourism sites like Chernobyl Tours open a visitor’s eyes to a broader understanding; a stronger sense of place. Tourist dollars are one of the best ways to help in the recovery of devastated destinations. Whether it be a place like Puerto Rico, devastated by a hurricane or the country of Rwanda, destroyed by genocide, the strength of victims around the world can be a powerful inspiration and go a long way towards a better understanding of the human condition.
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Disclaimer: The author was the guest of JayWay Travel during her trip to Ukraine.