Well hello there!
When I told most people that I was heading to Chernobyl they thought I was mad, few were intrigued and my parents as usual told me to “have a lovely time”. Here I will share some thoughts and feelings surrounding my trip to Chernobyl, and some practical tips on how to go about organising your own trip!
Chernobyl Tour – Saturday 6th October 2018
After staying out far too late the previous evening experiencing the true Ukrainian nightlife, the sound of my alarm at 6:45am wasn’t a welcome wake-up call. Leaving the hostel and making my way to the meeting point, I was very anxious yet excited (the hangover probably wasn’t helping my nerves!) to see what the day would bring. The sun was just rising on my walk over and I caught some monuments just as the sun was hitting them.
I try to see a sunrise and sunset in every place I visit, it truly is the most beautiful time of the day.
I met my group outside of the Kozatskiy Hotel located right on Independence Square. This is the first time I’ve seen Independence Square and I have to say it’s pretty beautiful. The drive over to Chernobyl takes about 2 hours, and whilst on the way over there a documentary about the New Safe Confinement covering Reactor Four was played. (Similar documentary here – lengthy documentary however very informative about the new sarcophagus and the dangers presented whilst in construction)
We arrived at Dytyatky checkpoint on the border of the 30-km Exclusion Zone. Passports are checked and we officially enter the Exclusion Zone. I am given my own Geiger Counter for the day so I can measure the radiation levels and it all starts to feel very real that I am entering the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
We stop to visit the Wormwood Star in Chernobyl city – a touching memorial which commemorates all lost villages as a consequence of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Following this we had lunch. It was a traditional Ukrainian dish consisting of a soup and chicken & veg.
We drive further into the Exclusion Zone and reach Leliv checkpoint, entering the 10km exclusion zone. At this point my Geiger counter is showing radiation levels of between 0.15-0.30 which is relatively low and I am pleasantly surprised. To put this into context, the level of natural radiation we are exposed per year on average is around 2.0 and the amount of radiation in a chest x-ray is around 0.1. Our guide goes onto explain that the reason we are experiencing such low levels of radiation considering how close we are to the site of the disaster is due to the remarkable and selfless acts of “The Liquidators” – the men and women who went right into the disaster zone almost immediately after and excavated soil, hosed down streets and built a concrete structure to cover reactor four, all whilst being exposed to the harsh radiation particles.
We drove further through the exclusion zone and arrived at a site where we could see the location of reactors 1-6. Before I arrived at Chernobyl, I wasn’t aware that there were two more reactors in the process of being built when the disaster happened, and even more surprisingly that work continued on both reactor 5 & 6 whilst the disaster played out. Our guide informed us that work only ceased on these two reactors in 1989, 3 years after the disaster.
We drove further on to see the New Safe Confinement over the original sarcophagus covering Reactor 4. This structure is seriously big. The idea is that eventually robotics will begin to deconstruct the old sarcophagus and Reactor 4 safely.
After leaving the reactors, we headed towards Pripyat, which is only 3km away from the power plant. You will know this town as the now-abandoned, ghost town being taken over by nature near the Chernobyl site. It truly is as unsettling as you see in the pictures. The town of Pripyat was home to over 49,000 residents, most of whom worked at the Chernobyl site and their families. The day after the disaster struck, the residents were given just a few hours to leave the town and were told they would be able to return in just a few days which of course didn’t ever happen, hence the abandonment still visible in the town.
Wandering around the “streets” of Pripyat is like someone has frozen this place in time. Still standing are the remnants of the Soviet propaganda, personal belongings litter the buildings and children’s toys still lay in the beds. We visited the main square, supermarket, school, kindergarten, the ferris wheel, football stadium and hospital, each with their own captivating stories. I had mixed feelings whilst visiting the town – on the one hand I was fascinated by this town stuck in a time capsule, and on the other I felt totally devastated for the people who had once lived here and had their lives turned upside down.
After visiting Pripyat, we headed to the Duga 3 (Russian Woodpecker). I didn’t even realise this was part of the tour but I am glad it was. Horrifyingly big, this structure formed part of the radar system used as part of the Soviet anti-ballistic missile early-warning network. The structure contains two antennas: first 150 meters high, and 550 meters long, second 80 meters high and 220 meters long.
After a long day, we began our journey back to Kiev. We arrived back to the city around 8pm so it is a full day which is intense and very full on, however I would definitely recommend. Go with an open mind and be ready to learn, you’ll surprise yourself at the weird yet totally fascinating packets of information you pick up ready to overload all of your family and friends with.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I actually stumbled across this trip. I did my standard, almost daily search of cheap flights on SkyScanner and came across flights to Kiev, Ukraine for £57 with Ukraine Intl. Airlines. This was about 6 weeks before my flight so not ridiculously in advance and a weekend flight (Friday 12pm out of Gatwick, returning Sunday at 9:30pm) SkyScanner directed me to BudgetAir (www.budgetair.co.uk) to book my flights. A little Googling here provided me with an extra £10 off my flight if I signed up to their newsletter. (Note: I believe this works for a whole multitude of flights booked with BudgetAir)
Total Flight Cost: £47 – Bargain!
As usual, I jumped on HostelWorld a couple of weeks before my trip and a quick search found me booking DREAM House Hostel without a thought of looking elsewhere. Perfect mix of socialising, bar/cafe on site, great location and good value. Definitely recommend this hostel from a female, solo traveller point of view.
Total Hostel Cost for two nights – £20 (There is definitely cheaper in Kiev but I think this is worth the extra few £’s for a clean, well-located, friendly hostel)
Transfer to/from the Airport
This was super easy! As my flight was late arriving into Kiev, I jumped in an Uber straight to my hostel. It was approx. 300UAH (£8.50).
On the way back to the airport on Sunday, I jumped on the metro near Independence Square after having spent the day wandering around. Khreshchatyk (M1) to Vokzalna and then took a short walk to the main station where I got on the Skybus.
Metro & SkyBus £2.90 (approx.)
Side Note about the Metro – I hardly used this at all during my trip as I find the best way to experience a city is to walk it. However if you do want to get somewhere fast, hop on the metro. Do not be put off by the lack of English, it’s super easy when you know where you’re going. I downloaded the Kiev Metro Map app which got me where I wanted to hassle free. Metro “tickets” are actually tokens and cost 2 UAH (approx. 6p) between any two stations! You can get these from the kiosk. I didn’t come across any people working in the kiosk who could speak English so I just signalled with my fingers how many tokens I wanted and handed over the cash. There are no return journeys so one token = one ride, return journey = two tokens. I believe you can also buy your tokens from the orange ticket machines or if you’re going to use the metro frequently you can buy a contactless card which can be topped up. This website has all the useful info regarding the metro system.
At the time of writing, the only way to visit Chernobyl is on an organised guided tour. I took my time to research the type of tour I wanted and the same name kept coming out on top – SoloEast Travel. Depending on how early in advance you book and what date you decide to visit on, the price may vary slightly. I paid $76 USD which included all permits, transport, English speaking guide, 2 course lunch and insurance. I was in a group of 18 other passengers – many solo – from all over the world!
A couple of tips to bear in mind:
- Book this trip at least 10 days in advance – Your passport has to be registered with the government so time is needed to do this. As Chernobyl is a restricted territory, your passport will be checked twice and if any of the information given to the tour company is different to what is on your passport, it is likely that you will be denied entry by the police at the checkpoints.
- REMEMBER TO TAKE YOUR PASSPORT WITH YOU – This is related to the point above! It will be checked multiple times – No passport = No entry.
- Be sure to cover up – There is a relatively strict dress code in place which is there for your own safety – Closed shoes, long trousers, long sleeved. I was there at the beginning of October so jeans, coat and trainers were a pretty much standard dress code for me, however they enforce these rules at all times of the year, even in 30+ degree heat.