What happens when humans suddenly leave a thriving city due to nuclear fallout? Nature starts to take back over and that’s exactly what has happened within the 30km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Chernobyl has been one of the places I have wanted to visit for some time, but my desire was not without a level of reservation. Typically, you might think this is because visiting the home of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster must come with concerns about radiation levels and how safe it is. But my concern was more to do with the question, “how genuine will the experience of a Chernobyl frozen in time be?”
If you want an extended treatment on this theme you should go and read Darmon Richter’s fantastic blog. He pretty well sums up my thoughts on the Chernobyl experience.
Briefly though, here are a few of my thoughts around Chernobyl.
There was a time when Chernobyl was the crème de la crème of UrbEx (urban exploration) or Dark Tourism, only accessible by illegal means. These days there are many tour groups that have daily, overnight and multi-day tours to Chernobyl. Just Google it and you’ll find a tour. They all do essentially the same route depending on which package you choose.
We booked a 1 day tour and visited the following places:
In Chernobyl town: Wormwood Star Memorial, St. Ilya Church, Memorial “To Those who Saved the World”, Kopachi village.
In Pripyat town: Lenin Street, the main square, the palace of culture, Polissya Hotel, a supermarket, Ferris wheel, the stadium, school, swimming pool, hospital.
Also, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Red Forest, the Pripyat road sign and Duga 3 – Russian Woodpecker.
Don’t for a second think that you’ll be exploring anywhere within the exclusion zone as a lone ranger, the place is packed! In our tour van alone, we had about 12 people. Multiply that by about 12 other tour vans and buses and you’ve got a horde of people all trying to ‘experience’ the same ‘deserted’ places and take the same ‘unique’ photograph, carefully framing out the rest of the group.
Frozen in time?
Blogs and websites love to engage the narrative that visiting Chernobyl is visiting a time capsule of 1986. Now while this has some merit – there are plenty of examples of Soviet architecture from the 1970s- to think that you’ll get a perfect snapshot of what life looked like is pretty far from the truth. Sadly, the place has been looted and destroyed over the years. Throughout the tour our guides regularly reminded us not to touch anything, although it is obvious that this warning is regularly disregarded. Dolls, cups, toys, books and gas masks are suspiciously placed in a variety of places. As you wander about you regularly find yourself looking at the ‘real-life’ angle you saw on Instagram! Richter describes seeing people moving and ‘rearranging artefacts’ throughout his trip to get that perfectly haunting photo. Sadly, this was also our experience.
Nature is phenomenal!
To quote my mate Josh, ‘nature is always moving towards making forests’. This was one of the things I most enjoyed about the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Seeing how nature had started to take back what was once its own was incredible. In Pripyat trees have erupted through the thick concrete steps of the central plaza. Wild grass has spread over every piece of open ground. Moss devours un-walked footpaths and weeds have started to grow in every gap, crevice and what you would think are impossible & uninhabitable places!
Despite all the hype about safety, the need to be full covered by clothing and constant reminders that ‘anything that comes into contact with radiation and is contaminated must be left in the exclusion zone’, there seemed to be a very lax approach to the possibility of contamination. The starkest example of this was when we left the exclusion zone and had to pass through a machine that we were told would detect if there was anything contaminated by radiation. The speed at which we were pushed through this machine and the fact that it didn’t even seemed to be turned on caused me to question a lot of the hype around the ‘danger’ of visiting Chernobyl.
Is it worth going?
Absolutely! If you go with the right perspective and expectation, it’s quite an incredible experience. If you focus on the fact that you are standing in the place where the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster happened only a little over 30 years ago it is quite a surreal experience.
Got questions? Leave a comment below.