Yes, you can get a vegetarian lunch on the Chernobyl tour. And yes, it might seem strange to be asking for a meat-free meal while you’re visiting a place that is well-known for its high radiation levels. Who has time to worry about health in a radiation zone? But it’s been more than 30 years since the nuclear reactor disaster there, and a few adventurous companies offer guided tours of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.
I went with chernobyl-tour.com, and if you’re looking for an English-speaking tour, I would highly recommend them. The guides were super knowledgeable and very nice. Despite there being about 50 people on the tour, it never felt too big, as the guides were very patient with explaining everything and answering questions. They didn’t have enough Geiger counters for everyone, but as we got closer to the reactor itself, I realized I didn’t mind not having one. Everyone else’s Geiger counters kept going off, like a weird version of a cell phone.
And yes, it’s safe. They screen people quite thoroughly leaving the area— there are three radiation checkpoints one has to pass on your way out. One unfortunate woman in our group had to leave her shoes behind after she set off the detector.
The entire area around the Chernobyl reactor, for a 30 kilometer radius, is called the Exclusion Zone. Within the Exclusion Zone is the 10-kilometer zone, which includes the remains of the reactor. However, in the outer zone are the remains of several small villages.
Our first stop is the village of Zalissya, just inside the Exclusion Zone. This was the beginning of the surreal: a deserted, overgrown village, but near a highway with cars driving by. While few people live in the Exclusion Zone, there were a few stubborn holdouts who refused to leave. Also, there are still people who work in the area, though they generally don’t live there. The village we went to is deserted, however, and very haunting. Here, you could clearly see the ordinary stuff that people left behind– clothes, books– that made the place seem very melancholy.
I hadn’t realized that the village of Chernobyl itself still had people living in it. It doesn’t look that bustling, but there’s still a few cars on the roads and a post office— one that has a sign giving the daily radiation reading. Honestly, though, there are more empty buildings than occupied ones, and for some reason, the village was exempt from the de-USSR’ing of the Ukraine. Unlike the rest of the country, which yanked down its Lenin statues, hammer and sickles and renamed all their streets back to Ukrainian names.
Next was the mostly-buried village of Kopachi. As most of the structures were made out of wood, and were radioactive, the village was mostly torn down— except for a kindergarten full of abandoned toys.
Next stop is this enormous, bizarre metal structure: the DUGA radar, a giant contraption built to track missiles and communicate. It was huge, and a little strange. Pictures don’t do this thing justice, as it’s too big to be photographed properly.
Before we went to Pripyat was a canteen style lunch– all food brought in from off-site, of course. The veggie option is pretty simple: potato and cabbage soup, rice and beans, shredded carrot and cabbage salad, with sliced apples and oranges for dessert. I would recommend the plain juice over the compote, as my compote tasted funny (and I noticed a few other people sniffing their glasses.)
Finally, we went to the town of Pripyat, which is where the now-iconic photos of abandoned buildings are taken. Home to almost 50,000 before the accident, it was evacuated shortly after and has not been lived in since.
It’s incredible, eerie, and more than a little haunting. Abandoned buildings are one thing— I’ve seen plenty of those in Detroit. Even the ghost towns of the southwest don’t quite compare to how recent this is. How abrupt. Clothes are left strewn on floors, writing in chalk not erased from the school chalkboards. A vending machine still has a glass cup, waiting for the next person to come along and order a drink.
The friend I was traveling with, who’s Polish, remembers being called out of class and given some sort of medicine that was supposed to help with radiation. I don’t have any concrete memories of Chernobyl— I was really young when it happened— but I do remember, vaguely, that the name evoked a sense of dread. Something bad was happening on the other side of the world. Also, the Chernobyl disaster and the Challenger explosion are inexplicably linked in my mind. I do remember being shown the Challanger launch— I must have been in preschool or kindergarten— and when the teachers realized what was happening, hurriedly switching the TV off.
I think that’s why so many people are fascinated by it: here is where we came very close to wiping ourselves out. With so many decades between the disaster and now, I think it’s easier to both realize how catastrophic it could have been, yet how distant it’s become in our memory. Time has become something like the concrete used to insulate the ruined reactor.
Tucked away in the back of our imaginations is the unused ferris wheel of Pripyat’s amusement park.
What was far more poignant about Pripyat was how familiar, yet how ruined and overgrown, it was. The main square was hopelessly overgrown with trees and some of the school buildings had collapsed. But underneath the desolation and faded, peeling paint was the remains of a once-normal town.
Interestingly, some people have snuck back into Chernobyl to dot it with modern graffiti. The wildlife, such as the deer and bears, seemed quite fitting.
The absolute final stop was the Sarcophagus and the newly-built “Arch” over the ruined reactor. Our guides told us we had to keep our distance, and honestly, she didn’t have to tell us twice.
Which is probably why it still haunts us: it’s not full of three-headed animals, or devoid of songbirds, or full of poisonous green gas. It’s just a town that was abandoned for the scariest of reasons.
Leaving the Exclusion Zone is a memorial statue to the firefighters and liquidators who gave their lives trying to secure the radioactive material.
Our guides showed us a video about the history of the disaster, and the first half we watched on the way in: the dramatic explosion, the radioactive cloud discovered drifting over Europe by Sweden, the frantic scrambling of Soviet politicians to both explain and cover up what had happened. The second half we watched was far more tragic, as it detailed the efforts to secure the reactor and stop the spread of radiation. There was a sad theme of older men, the few who had outlived their colleagues, explaining how they had helped stop the disaster: the firefighters, the miners tunnelling under the reactor, the countless engineers. They all repeated the same idea: that they’d be doing their duty, they had been doing what needed to be done.
Leaving the Exclusion Zone was an egg statue, Ovum II. It’s full of letters from around the world, it’s designed to outlast the reactor, and symbolizes how life will go on. As we went to Chernobyl on Easter, it seemed particularly fitting.