A Day in Chernobyl
A day trip to Chernobyl was firmly on my list of things to do when I planned my solo trip to Kyiv, and I am very happy that I went through with it despite initial reservations.
Check out my country guide on Ukraine to find answers about being a tourist in Ukraine.
The visit to the Chernobyl site was not for entertainment purpose. With all due respect, I would like to pay tribute to all unsuspecting victims of this great tragedy which still ravages through the lives of locals. I used this opportunity to do some soul searching and I will urge you to do the same.
History of Chernobyl
Chernobyl was a small town in the former USSR which hosted the nuclear reactors. These days it is part of Ukraine and lies at the border of Ukraine and Belarus. It was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in humankind, even worse than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings in WWII. The radiation emitted during the catastrophe at Reaction number 4 went all the way to Ireland and to this day, the site of the accident is highly radioactive. It has been covered by a giant metal sarcophagus to avoid any further accidents while the slow process of clean up is taking place.
There is a 30 km exclusion zone around the reactor in which entry is strictly forbidden. There is an inner 10 km exclusion zone and then you get to the reactor site. Interestingly enough, nature has taken over, inside this area and lots of animals have returned as well. Even some former residents have decided to come back perhaps because the radiation level has reduced to almost negligible amounts. This along with the old age makes them a bit fearless of this place.
Practical Tips before visiting Chernobyl
- You can only visit Chernobyl as part of a tour and any visits on your own are not only forbidden but actually very dangerous.
- All visitors need a permit for this day trip Chernobyl, this will be arranged by your tour operator.
- You must book the day trip to Chernobyl tours in advance in order for them to get the permit from the government for you. It takes a few days so don’t rely on at-the-spot bookings, it is not possible.
- You must bring your passport with you, it will be checked before you board for the tour, photocopies are not allowed.
- Wear comfortable clothes that cover the maximum amount of skin to avoid any radiation contamination. It can also get quite cold quite quickly so make sure you have warm clothes on you (even in June when I visited I had to buy a very expensive hoodie).
- Follow your guide at all times, it is imperative because any misstep can be dangerous.
- Stay on the roads and avoid contact with soil and vegetation, the radiation levels are dangerous.
- Do not try to enter buildings because a lot of them are in bad condition and you wouldn’t want nuclear rubble falling on you.
How to book Tours to Chernobyl?
I used a company called Chernobyl-Tour. The guide was professional and friendly but I’d recommend checking a few tour operators before booking your tour because there’s some difference in prices. I’d not recommend longer than a day because you cannot go anywhere without your guide and it gets you quite depressed when you’re in the area, not sure I’d cope with that well over 2 or 3 days.
All tours include food and accommodation.
Is it Safe to Visit Chernobyl?
It is so safe to be at Chernobyl that there are actual settlers inside the exclusion zone who live there. You will be given a radiation counter which will measure your exposure throughout the day. Please wear it throughout the day. If you follow the guide and the recommended routes, your exposure is less than an x-ray throughout your day trip to Chernobyl. (It takes 300 and 500 roentgens per hour to make a lethal dose whereas your entire days level is roughly 20-200 micro roentgens)
You will also get a Geiger counter which measures the radiation level around you. It was more for fun than anything else when the guide told us to check radiation levels at a certain point (Pripyat Ferris wheel for example) and it was also good to check it from time to time, in order to feel safe.
What to expect from Chernobyl Tour?
When it comes to the actual time frame of the day trip to Chernobyl, it is a full-day tour. It takes your whole day from 8am to roughly 7 or 8pm and the tour starts and finishes in Kyiv. We headed first to an abandoned village with a beautiful church followed by a visit to the bridge of death. After lunch, we headed to Pripyat, the nuclear reactor 4 and its sarcophagus, then to DUGA radar followed by a brief visit to Chernobyl and then back to Kyiv.
A Day in Chernobyl
My day at Chernobyl began with the process of registration after which, we all got seated in a bus. We departed from Kiev, at the point of Maidan Nezalezhnosti which is the central square of Kyiv around 8:00 in the morning. The drive to Chernobyl took a little over an hour and was quite uneventful. I ended up watching a documentary about the Chernobyl disaster on the way. It shows how the disaster unfolded. If you don’t know the details, it is a good starting point.
Dytyatky Checkpoint and Chernobyl Entrance
At the end of an hour, we reached Dytyatky checkpoint which is the official entrance to the Exclusion zone. You will need your passports here. It took a little bit of time to process the entry and we waited patiently and nervously for a bit.
This is what the entrance into the 30km Exclusion zone looks like.
The Village of Zalissya & St. Illi Church
The first stop inside was the village of Zalissya which is full of abandoned houses. In this area, the vegetation has taken over everything. Roaming about the site, an eerie feeling takes over when you see people’s abandoned possessions and how nature is taking over everything. It was really bizarre to think that people didn’t even get a chance to take their possessions because they all turned poisonous. Even small things like photos and toys turned lethal, how cruel!
Fun Fact: Animals started coming back to the region almost immediately after the fallout and there are a lot of species of animals who live freely including lynx. Trees and plants did bear the brunt and some trees were even reported as being luminescent at night.
The next stop was this beautiful church (Saint Illi’s Church) which is still used for christenings.
Kopachi Village & The Kindergarten From Hell
We stayed for a little bit and then made our way to the almost fully buried village of Kopachi with a remaining kindergarten; the building was in derelict condition. Going inside is usually not allowed but our guide allowed us to go inside. Being there amidst children’s books, scattered toys and the broken floor is a bizarre experience. The radiation near the ground was much higher with the Geiger counter. The limbless dolls strung outside made it even creepier.
This was a relatively quick stop and then headed to the Red Forest.
The Red Forest
It was a heart-racing experience. The guide asked us to take our Gieger counters out and switch them on. The van passed through the forest and the reading skyrocketed and the counters started beeping frantically. We passed relatively quickly and things went back to normal. Apparently, no one knows the reason behind this high radioactivity in this area.
My stomach was rumbling at this point but the guide gave us the good news that our next stop would be for lunch. Our lunch was arranged at the cafeteria which was surprisingly very good and well organised and clean. We had an hour to rest, get coffee and use restrooms.
The next stop after lunch was the town of Pripyat, populated by 50 thousand people before the evacuation. It is merely three kilometres away from the accident which makes it the closest town to the accident.
The town square has a massive hotel and a supermarket. It was a symbol of new communism more aligned to the European model.
The tower blocks, the derelict stairs, the massive hotel were all being eaten by nature. We have no idea how persistent, efficient and quick nature is when it comes to repairing its systems.
Pripyat Amusement Park
We walked around a bit and then headed to the amusement park. This is perhaps the most iconic image of Chernobyl and Pripyat and everyone knows this Ferris wheel.
The highest reading of the day which was almost 200 Sieverts was under one of the pods but it was checked by the guide at a safe distance with a long pole.
A small walk later we arrived at the stadium; it was equally in a state of disrepair with wooden benches and nature taking over.
The weather of Pripyat is unpredictable as it becomes cold and starts raining all of a sudden. The entire town is falling apart and it is not allowed to go inside the buildings since it is not safe. Luckily our guide had some umbrellas but the rain stopped soon and the sun came out.
Azure Swimming Pool
The second-last stop of Pripyat was the swimming pool called ‘Azure’, which was still operational after the accident.
There is an abandoned complex with space for multiple sports facilities which has the swimming pool inside. The pool was in bad condition. With the jungle almost creeping into the building, it gave sort of that eerie feeling again. And it has gotten to the point that you can barely see the front of this massive building.
Our Day trip to Chernobyl became some more exciting with the drive to an open-air exhibition of transport vehicles and robots used in 1986 cleanup activities. This junkyard with many different types of vehicles is extremely dangerous and the radiation levels are high. Our guide showed us the reading in a dredger arm, it was shocking but then this equipment was used for cleaning up so no surprises there.
We drove to the nuclear reactor via the bridge of death. We stopped there for a few minutes to get the view of the Chernobyl plant and sarcophagus from the bridge. This is the highlight for all day trips to Chernobyl. Then we proceeded towards Nuclear Reactor 4 which was the site of the accident. You can also see the cooling towers of the Chernobyl Nuclear power Plant 3rd generation.
There is a cooling lake running nearby where we stopped to take the view of all four reactors together for a few minutes. The lake is also host to giant catfish which you can feed sometime. Then came the site of the accident, which is the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, reactor number 4. The sarcophagus is much bigger than I had expected. You cannot go beyond the 300m distance, well why would you want to?
The radiation levels are very low. The arch has an imposing structure which is entirely made of metal and covers the old arch inside. It will take millions of years for the nuclear material inside to decay.
Then we drove to the front of the building which is the closest point allowed for visitors. There you will see a memorial “Life for Life” in front of the administrative building.
The Russian Woodpecker
The last and my favourite stop for the day was the secret soviet era radar called DUGA-1. This giant radar is also called the Russian Woodpecker. It is one of the three radars built during the cold war to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles. Only three of them were needed to cover the entire plant.
My favourite part of the entire day was the wind rushing through it. It was said that the reason it wasn’t demolished was because of how massive it was and there was a real chance of it leading to an earthquake which could have potentially lead to the fallout of the old arch around the Chernobyl plant.
Chernobyl Town and Drive Back to Kiev
We drove through the town of Chernobyl. It was quiet and not much was happening around so we drove rather quickly.
At the end of this weird and exciting day trip to Chernobyl, we returned the equipment, got screened for radiation levels and then afterwards, drove back to Kiev.
It was an eerie, heavy day with weird excitement. I headed back to my hotel after a quick dinner to get some rest after a shower and felt much better the next day when I was again exploring Kiev.