Day 5: The weirdest day-trip ever
Chernobyl Travel Blog› entry 6 of 260 › view all entries
April 10th, 2010 – by: Biedjee
An excursion to the site of great tragedy. While I am not really a 'disaster' tourist, I do think that visiting such places are an important part of travelling. The killing fields in Cambodia, the green zone in Beirut, Auschwitz in Poland... all morbid experiences which only the most masochistic would consider fun, yet all are important places which I would recommend to anyone.
However, while the aforementioned places are mainly a lesson in horrible history, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is still very much a contemporary issue. Not only are there still high levels of radiation throughout the zone, there is also a very real danger of the hastily built sarcophagus, which shields of the radioactive core of the exploded plant, collapsing - at the time it was expected it would last 30 years, but now 24 years after the accident scientists are not so sure any more.
So not your average day trip then, eh? It has to be said, the risk of radiation exposure on these trips is very low. The guides obviously know what they are doing and which areas to avoid. And unless you stumble on some unmarked radioactive material, or the sarcophagus collapses while you visit, radiation is not really a danger. It is said that a flight from London to New York exposes you of more radiation than a visit to Chernobyl does.
So early in the morning I checked out of my hotel, stored my luggage, and took the subway to the centre. In two days in Kyiv I had not met a single tourist, so I was quite surprised to find the minibus not only full, but to find that 9 of the 16 people on the tour were actually Dutch! (and 15 out of the 16 were male, not sure what that is supposed to imply).
On the way to the exclusion zone (130 kilometres from Kyiv) we were shown a Discovery Channel documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. I quite liked the fact that they did this, as it provided quite a bit of background to our trip, much more than an explanation from a guide would have. Also watching the video distracted us from the horrific driving. Ukraine is known for its horrible drivers, and more than once the 16 of us were clenching our seats as the driver tried to overtake a car in a blind corner, while oncoming tracks came speeding towards us.
The Chernobyl exclusion zone consists of a 10km and a 30 km perimeter. Inside the 10km perimeter no people are allowed to live (though several thousand still work there, commuting every day) and in the 30 km perimeter zone only a handful pensioners live, who returned there after the initial evacuations. While most of the area has been decontaminated, people living here still run the risk of radiation exposure, not to mention the fact that it is impossible to consume any produce grown in the region.
After we passed through several checkpoints we arrived at the town of Chernobyl, which gave its name to the nuclear power complex 12 kilometres away.
Then we had to sign a paper, probably a waiver. No one was able to read it and we figured that was probably for the best. After this we got back in the bus again to drive into the 10 km zone.
Though the areas has been decontaminated entirely, much of the so-called 'Red forest' still carries an unknown amount of radioactive fallout.
First we drove to the nuclear complex. The Chernobyl disaster happened in reactor number 4 of this huge complex, and the remaining three reactors actually remained in operation long after the accident. It wasn't until 2001 that the last of the working reactors was closed, under political pressure from other countries.
Our guide explained how he normally works as a guide for foreign scientists and money lenders who come to visit to oversee the construction of the new sarcophagus. Only a handful tourists visit the site, normally only in the weekends.
It was an odd sight looking at the fateful reactor, encapsulated in the dilapidated concrete and steel sarcophagus. You can't see, smell or feel radiation, yet the presence of the danger was strongly felt, even at the distance of more than 2 kilometres from which we observed the reator. Radiation level had gone up to 25 times the level of background radiation in Kyiv, yet this wasn't a dangerous level, and nowhere near the level of 50,000 micro-roentgens that was measured in this area the months after the disaster.
More impressive than the destroyed reactor was the visit to the nearby satellite town of Prypryat. This town was built for the workers of the nuclear complex, in true Soviet style. The grey apartment blocks would have been depressing enough back in its heyday, but seeing them now in their abandoned state was just bizarre.
We walked around the fairground, which was due to open days after the disaster. Again, bizarre is the best way to describe the sight and feeling.
We also entered one of the abandoned apartments. When people were finally evacuated, a few days after the disaster, they had had to leave all their possessions behind. They were told they would be returning in a few weeks. With the exception of a handful of pensioners, none of them ever returned home.
It is hard to describe the feeling I had while walking around the ghost town. It was just so surreal. Especially after seeing the documentary on the way over, it was just incredible to imagine the disaster what happened here. People continued to walk around breathing contaminated air for several days before they were evacuated!
It is ironic that both the accident, the initial fallout disaster *and* the eventual prevention of a much worse disaster can all be attributed to the totalitarian dictatorship that was the Soviet Union. Initial evacuations and containment of the burning reactor had been delayed because the officials tried to keep the disaster silent for the government in Moscow. General secretary Gorbachev did not hear about the fallout until he was alerted by scientists from Sweden who had detected an unusual high level of radiation over Europe!
But at the same time, because of the Communist regime, the Soviets were able to send the 600,000 scientists, soldiers, miners and fire-fighters needed to contain the fire and decontaminate the region.
The good thing that came out of the disaster was that world leaders finally began to see the dangers of a nuclear war and started the disarmament of nuclear weapons. (apparently all UN member countries signed the resolution, apart from India). Also, the disaster indirectly caused the bankruptcy and collapse of the Soviet empire.
Back in Chernobyl town we had a very extensive lunch (food was brought in from outside the zone) and I must say that this was the best food I'd had in Ukraine so far.
On the way out of the exclusion zone we had one final hair-raising moment when first the bus, and then all the passengers had to be checked for contamination. We were all clear though. All throughout the day we were never exposed to more than 1,200 micro roentgens, which is below dangerous levels (though still 100 times more than normal background radiation).
Back in Kiev I hung around Maydan Nezalezhnosti for a while and opted for a quick dinner at the food court of one of the shopping centres. I wasn't really hungry after that huge lunch, but I figured I had to eat something before catching the train to Odessa later tonight.
Well, that was a bad idea, really. The chicken was horrible and definitely not something I'd like to repeat soon.
The train to Odessa was smooth and comfortable. According to my guidebook the trains in Ukraine are old and ramshackle. Well, not this one! This one was spanking new!
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