Chernobyl

Follow along with my pics and videos by downloading them at https://bengoldsworthy.net/files/Chernobyl.zip

A friend—Harriett—and I went to Ukraine for a week. Here’s what happened.

Day 1

We walked out of the airport and were looking for the train to Kiev when a guy called us over and told us to get in his van for a ₴100 (~£3) ride to Kiev. There were a few other people in there so we figured why not and blasted off across the Ukrainian motorway seatbeltless. This drive was a good introduction to the Ukrainian approach to health & safety: they don’t get too close. We saw mopeds and even a guy on one of those stupid hoverboards, cars flying past him at 80–90 mph.

When we got to Kiev we reminded him that we didn’t have any cash and the driver told us where to find a cash machine, then sat in his van without any way of knowing if we would return or not (we did). We got to our hostel and got set up, then went to the nearby pub. They serve little bowls of seeds with drinks (I assume to dehydrate you) and we got through far too many. They also garnish vodka with pickle, which is ridiculous. The place was closing up so we decided to ask the staff if they could translate some useful phrases for us—your hellos and thankyous and excuse mes. This led to an hour-and-a-half chat with them where we also ended up with a lot of good Ukrainian swearwords. We went next door to a 24-hr club (if Lancaster had one of these I don’t think I’d have survived first year) where we ran into one of the barmaids again and chatted with her via Google Translate for a bit.

Day 2

We wandered around Kiev all day without much aim. Every employed Ukrainian spends their working day looking miserable, but when you ask them for any help they’re very friendly and happy to help. At one point we decided to take a creepy alleyway that took us up a hill into a little forest in which we promptly got lost. After stumbling about for a while (and running across a Satanic church) a stray dog emerged and kept running off and returning. We figured we’d see where it was going and it ended up leading us to the exit. We took video evidence (kyiv-forest-stray-dog.mp4) to prove to ourselves that the dog wasn’t a hallucination (it was easily over 35°) and are torn: Harriett reckons the dog was our spirit animal come to aid us in our time of need, whilst I reckon it’s actually a municipal employee whose job is to retrieve clueless tourists. Probably in some weird bureaucratic twist the dog is actually the highest-paid civil servant in Ukraine or something.

Day 3

We got our minibus over to the Zone and they stuck on a documentary about the Chernobyl disaster that I’ve seen before, but which was still interesting. We stopped at the military checkpoint before the 25 km outer exclusion zone where there was of course a gift shop selling all manner of garish, radiation symbol-emblazoned tat. As we drove through, our guide started going through the safety instructions in the Zone: don’t eat anything, don’t sit down, don’t wander off, don’t put anything on the ground, etc. He added that entry into buildings has been illegal since 2014 as a lot of them are falling apart, and I was a little worried the tour would be a bit disappointing.

We passed into the 10 km inner zone and drove past the Red Forest, one of the most radioactive places in the Zone, at which point everybody’s dosimeters started beeping (entering-the-zone-radiation-alarms.mp4) which was fun. Then we drove into the centre of Pripyat (the city next to the reactor), got out of the minibus and our guide took us straight into a building. I shouldn’t have been worried.

We spent most of the day looking through a bunch of places in Pripyat. Street level was basically all like building-and-trees.mp4, walking through a forest until oh hey an apartment block or oh hey a lamppost. We went up to the top of a 16-storey block of flats, explored schools, shops, kindergartens and the hospital. The guide would basically lead us in, then disappear and leave us to our own devices until suddenly we’d hear his voice calling from miles away. We also ticked off the Pripyat fairground and built-but-never-used sports stadium—there was a specific spot on the underside of one of the ferris wheel capsules where the radiation would spike the from the usual background level of ~0.2 µSv to ~500 µSv (pripyat-ferris-wheel-radioactive-spot.mp4) because the liquidators missed that spot when they were hosing everything down.

We stopped outside the reactor, now enclosed in the shiny €2.1 bn (and only good for 100 years) New Safe Confinement, on the way to our hotel in Chernobyl town in the 25 km zone. There’s a surprising number of people working in the Zone these days, mostly nuclear plant workers dismantling the old reactor under the Confinement and a lot of military. We weren’t given a clear reason why there seemed to be so many soldiers about, since they obviously aren’t going to be involved in the reactor work, so Harriett and I have a sneaking suspicion some Ukrainian powers-that-be have realised they have a big area of nothing to hide something in—our guide also said that flying a drone in the Zone is illegal because you might see something you’re not supposed to (before promptly launching his drone, of course). The hotel itself was fairly spartan but comfy enough, although the heat and the barking of stray dogs kept us up most of the night.

Day 4

Ukrainians don’t believe in stupid time-specific meals, so we had carbonara for breakfast and headed out early to the Chernobyl-2 secret military establishment, which housed the 50-storey, 1 km-long Duga-1 radar installation. The entrance to the road to Chernobyl-2 was disguised as a children’s summer camp, but it’s rather harder to hide a big sod-off metal thing that can be seen for miles around, so the Soviets just said it was a TV antenna and anyone who didn’t fancy a visit from the KGB nodded along. We walked along it and saw that all the lowest-level ladders had been removed because a Belarussian stalker [illegal Zone explorer] fell and died a few years ago. As we got to the end, our guide pointed to the remaining ladder: they missed that one. Cue the bolder of us clambering up, although as I popped my head over the ladder about 8 stories up and noticed the walkway there slanted about 40° sideways, coinciding with a clap of thunder and the coming of rain, we decided to call it quits there.

We went behind the radar installation and explored the tunnels of its control room for a couple hours—a lot of vintage computer tech. As we were leaving, 4 or 5 other minibuses had pulled up and we saw the advantage of having spent the night in the Zone rather than coming from Kiev. We hit a grabbag of other spots, like a fish farm and a drained lake, and then had lunch at the canteen for Chernobyl workers.

At this point we were getting very sick of all the pickle and dill in Ukrainian cuisine, but we were getting to know our group better the longer we spent together. There was the two of us, couples from Czechia, Britain and Poland, a Ukrainian, a clueless Chinese woman (who kept leaning her dosimeter against radiation hotspots in order to better take a photo, then picking it up and walking off again without even giving it a wipe, who announced as we got onto the minibus after Duga-1 that she had left her dosimeter behind and who at one point zipped off the bottom part of her trousers and was waltzing around in shorts—a big no-no in the Zone—because she thought the tour was over) and an American bellend who would routinely get lost and who, after being told at a train station that we could get up onto the trains as long as we did it on the side that the guard couldn’t see, promptly climbed up the guard’s side of the train, and then onto the bloody roof.

We finished off the tour by sneaking into Reactor № 5, which had been under construction when the accident happened and was still surrounded by rusting, collapsing cranes. As we climbed the structure we would be walking along and then suddenly come across a bunch of precipitous 4-5-storey drops to either side (reactor-no-5-precipitous-drop.mp4), and it really made me wish I’d brought a torch. A couple vehicle graveyards later we were on our way back to Kiev, having sucked up a group average of a 4-hour transatlantic flight’s worth of radiation.

We got back to the hostel, then back to the pub from the first night but neither of the girls were working so we told someone to tell them we’d popped in. A meal and (several) bevs later, we called it a night and didn’t have time to do anything other than travel home on the fifth day.

Verdict and takeaways: It was a very very good trip. The two-day option is definitely worth it. I wonder if they’d take non-Ukrainian guides, it would make a very cool summer gig. Those remaining 42 storeys of Duga-1 are taunting me. I can’t believe nobody’s ever filmed a gimmick horror movie in the Zone. I definitely want to do more urbexing now.

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