Chernobyl disaster has happened 33 years ago. Since then, the territory 30 kilometers around Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has become the Exclusion Zone. More than 116 thousand people who used to live here had been evacuated after the disaster. Till recently, you could get here only with the help of a special permit. The Exclusion Zone that was created after the disaster at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant became a touristic hallmark of Ukraine. Tourists are attracted by technogenic objects, wild nature, abandoned towns and… adrenaline. Nothing threatens tourists unless they take official routes. In the fall of 2018, an information center appeared at the entrance to the zone. In the zone itself, there is a hotel and hostel for tourists. In 2017 the Chernobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve has begun to operate on the territory of the exclusion zone. So, there is something to look at. The author of Opinion planned to visit the Exclusion Zone as a journalist and a part of a special press tour, but eventually, he decided to use the services of one of the most popular metropolitan tour operators to find out what they primarily show to tourists and what objects interest people on the tour the most?
Passport control & safety rules
“We don’t like the word ‘excursion’ because we bring people here not to entertain, but to get acquainted. Anyone’s interest in real events in the history of Chernobyl is extremely important for us,” it is written in promotional material of one of the tour operators that officially brings people to the Exclusion Zone. In the booklets of another tour operator in Ukrainian, Russian and English they invite to witness with your own eyes “the scale of events that changed the history of human civilization”.
In just 5 months of 2019, the flow of visitors to the Chernobyl zone has increased by almost 40%. In 2018, the Exclusion Zone was visited by 71.862 thousand people. This year, 150 thousand visitors are expected, most of them foreigners. First and foremost the majority of them arrive from the EU countries, in particular, Germany, France, Poland… also many tourists come from Japan and China, the USA and Canada. In other words, as guides say, tourists here are from all over the world.
In the media, they say that the tourist demand for excursions to the Exclusion Zone has increased due to the premiere of the acclaimed TV series Chernobyl by HBО. Although the guides themselves admit that the number of tourists increases every month even without this series. The real “outcome” of the series will be noticed closer to autumn when the second and third waves of reviews will pass.
…The bus for tourists with “Radioactivity” sign under the windshield is waiting at 7:15 am near the central railway station of Kyiv. This is convenient for both Kyiv residents and people from other places, most of them use the metro.
After greeting us, the guides carefully check the list of the group, look at our tickets, check passports and dress code. “Don’t get me wrong, without documents, you won’t be allowed into the zone; with inaccurate data in the documents – you won’t be allowed into the zone; without special clothing (closed trousers, sweater or shirt with long sleeves and comfortable closed shoes) – you won’t be allowed into the zone,” the representative of travel agencies scares us. “In general, you’ll have to put effort to get through the checkpoint.” After these words, the guide grinned. It became unclear, whether he was joking or there were really such strict requirements. The day before, everyone who paid for the tour got a reminder letter. All the upper mentioned requirements were highlighted there in red. However, two people came in short-sleeved shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. Classic tourists who seem to mix up the Exclusion Zone and the Mediterranean Sea.
Registration and check passed, the bus closed its doors, we moved forward… well, these two remained on the street. They were not taken with us. Another three people from our group gave incorrect passport data. The guide is noticeably nervous and tries to call someone in order to pass on the “refined lists”.
The road from Kyiv to the checkpoint “Dityatky” (the main checkpoint to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is located near the village Dytiatky Ivankiv district) takes from one and a half to two hours (approximately 120 km.). In the bus, the guide briefly tells us what awaits us in the zone, once again reminds us the rules of safety (the main ones are to do everything that he will say and not to get lost) and tries to joke about excursions to Chernobyl, for example, that “10% of people in the group that got lost is not a loss, but a statistical error.” Not everyone liked this joke.
We’re still on our way out of Kyiv when our bus is outrun by two more – painted in branded signs of the competitor firm. Most people on the bus are sleeping. Those who were awake were offered to watch a Soviet documentary about Prypyat.
At the border with the zone
In 10 minutes prior to arrival at the checkpoint, the guide woke up the group with a loudspeaker. He asked everyone to take out passports and explained the process of check at the border. He also separately stressed that the last normal toilet will be at the checkpoint, so he advised us to use it.
The crossing of the checkpoint, in spite of 3 buses ahead of us, lasted no longer than 20 minutes. Police officer entered the bus and with the help of a special device, he scanned our tickets, checked the documents and asked to fill out an agreement on standards of behavior in the Exclusion Zone. For 15 more minutes, the group was standing in the queue for an individual dosimeter. The guide explains, “Since March this year, the administration has introduced the mandatory presence of such devices. It will record how much radiation is absorbed by a particular tourist. Theoretically – to test each person. Kind of, if we will walk with you on wrong roads, and you will get more than necessary, we will be deprived of our license.”
I took the guide aside and asked where and how I can find out the indicators of precisely my dosimeter? I get an honest answer that it is unlikely to happen. They explain that you have to write official letters and wait for a long time. In one word, it’s generally for internal analytics. Among themselves guys are kidding that individual dosimeters are another way of the administration of the zone to extort some money from tourists. They say that in previous years when there were no such dosimeters – everything was faster and more coherent. However, when you’re talking to tourists, the vast majority of whom are foreigners, you understand – even if these dosimeters don’t work at all, they have already completed their mission. In the very beginning of the tour-route, everyone was reassured, for it is very important for foreigners that “the administration is monitoring that you will not receive radiation more than necessary.”
On average, around one thousand tourists visit the zone during a day. Guide says that we were lucky because in the result of today’s rain there will be no more than 650 people. So, this is one of the first disappointments of the tour. If someone thought that in the Exclusion Zone there is only you, face to face with nature, which is recovering from the disaster. Well, it is not. Walking around popular sites, you will definitely meet dozens of foreigners with selfie sticks and cameras. By the way, entry into the Exclusion Zone is permitted only after you are 18.
Chernobyl and Prypyat
In general, there are several popular routes in the Exclusion Zone – around the 30-kilometer, 10-kilometer and the most interesting 5-kilometer zone from the epicenter of the disaster – those very four reactors of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The most visited one-day tour walks you through the city of Chernobyl, the city of Prypyat, the Chernobyl NPP and the classified object “DUGA-1″ (Chernobyl-2). That is the very tour our group has taken.
The main part of the program is a trip to Prypyat, which every year is getting more and more dilapidated. The reason for it is not only the environment and time but also looters who take scrap metal. Officially you can’t visit the abandoned buildings in the ghost town. However, tourists came here from abroad not only to look at the buildings from the outside. The majority manages to get into an apartment where no one lives for more than thirty years, a school or kindergarten, which still has desks and chairs in their rooms. So to speak, just to pop in without informing the guides.
Among the most popular locations of Prypyat: “The Ferris Wheel”, which nobody used so far – the solemn opening was planned on May 1, 1986; a kindergarten and a school, municipal pool, stadium, cinema “Prometheus”, flooded pier, a police station and detention facilities; city executive committee building – the first headquarters for the elimination of the consequences of the disaster; Hotel Polissya, where they located observation point for coordination of helicopter operations over the ruins of the reactor number four; the hospital, which treated the first victims of the accident and its liquidation. The vast majority of the objects are clearly distinguishable for those who are interested in Chernobyl. They depicted them in news and documentary films, they were somehow reflected in the HBO series. As you walk along, you feel like you’ve already been here. Two or three hours will be enough for a walking tour around the center of the abandoned city.
In the city of Chernobyl, which is located further from the Nuclear Power Plant than Prypyat, most tourists were obviously bored. Here, they have almost a civilization: a hotel, a hostel, a store… A part of Power Plant’s staff resides in Chernobyl. Seeing the frightened eyes of the tourists, they are a little embarrassed, like – what is there to be afraid of? In fact, the dosimeter that we’ve rented shows the radiation level that is lower than in Kyiv. Guides say that for a person the acceptable norm of radiation background is 30 microroentgen per hour. So they provide us with figures – near the red building of the Kyiv National University named after Taras Shevchenko radiation background is 16 microroentgen per hour, near the walls of the Kyiv’s City Hall on Khreshchatyk – 24 microroentgen per hour. In the middle of Chernobyl, near the alley that was made to commemorate resettled towns and villages, our rented dosimeter “Stora” showed 14 microroentgen per hour.
In the town, tourists were allowed to wander around for 40 minutes. It was a walking tour; a walk around the city and exhibitions of machinery and robots that participated in the liquidation of the accident.
Next – the pinnacle of the tour – Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Next to the station, we see the memorial to the first liquidators, the Sarcophagus – an observation deck, they drove us around the territory of the plant on the bus. On a separate tour and for an additional fee, guides say that you can get to the station. Program of our tour did not include this.
There was no feeding of huge catfishes near the Power Plant that was advertised in mass media and booklets of travel agencies. “These catfishes were a hallmark of the zone, we always told tourists to take bread in order to feed them. You’ve never seen such great catfishes,” says the guide. “But lately the water level has fallen, this winter everything has been frozen so they are extinct. Not all of them, of course, but it is unlikely that you’ll see them here.”
Tired, but happy tourists of our group after visiting the territory around the Nuclear Power plant were brought to the lunch. For 150 hryvnias right in the dining room №19 of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant you will be offered a borsch or vegetable soup for starters, then – rice or mashed peas with chicken chops. Together with salad and a glass of compote, we have a fairly balanced lunch that is rich in calories. Actually, a trip to the dining room for most foreign tourists – it’s like a completely separate location. First of all – a cool opportunity to see the Chernobyl object as an architectural form from within. Secondly, to taste meals that probably were eaten by the station’s staff. Cutlery, which seems to be at least 30 years old makes this place even more authentic.
The final stop of the tour was the secret object “Chernobyl-2″ – the huge antennas of the radar “DUGA-1”, which were developed to track the launch of ballistic missiles of USSR’s potential opponents.
Most of the way back home, tourists, tired of an exhausting route and heat, were sleeping in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus. Those, who couldn’t fall asleep, were looking at the photos and videos they managed to make and trying to catch the connection in order to quickly upload a photo. It seems that the last “vivid” interest of the group was stirred when we were crossing the 30-kilometer’s checkpoint and left the exclusion zone. On the very “demarcation line” one of the tour operators set up a tent with specific souvenirs – fridge magnets, cups, t-shirts… and even condoms that glow in the dark. The vast majority of souvenirs are decorated with “radiation” label and photo of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. However, there were also those tourists who bought nothing. “It’s as if returning from war you bring shell casing as a memory,” one of the men mumbled.
Around 20:00 the bus arrives in Kyiv. Before saying goodbye, the guide advised to wash the clothes which visitors wore during the tour, however, he assured us that even this is not necessary. Every tourist on his or her way out of 10- and 30-kilometer zones was checked for radiation pollution. If the automatic turnstile does not detect radiation – it will automatically let you in the “big world”. Everything is all right, go home. If it finds something, you will be examined separately by people specially trained for this. It is possible that radioactive dust fell on a tourist, or someone decided to take some stone (which for obvious reasons it is strictly forbidden) from the zone. In our group, everyone passed. For 1500 hryvnias (for foreigners, 150 USD), over the course of a one-day tour, the Chernobyl zone slightly opened the veil of its secrets. Who wants more and deeper – come here again. But take more money, because the official tour operators have programs for 2, 3, 5 and even 7 days. As it is stated at the beginning of the popular tour operator’s booklet, “Having seen Chernobyl at least once, you look in a different way at the so-called ‘ordinary life’. Including your own. Well, this is, perhaps, the main aim of this trip rich in impressions.”
By Vadym Lubchak
Photo by the author