Exploring the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site
The Ultimate “Dark Tourism” Experience
Earlier this year I booked a spontaneous flight to Kyiv. I’d been meaning for ages to visit the Exclusion Zone at Chernobyl, but I wanted an edgier experience than the typical day tours. There are (understandably) a lot of laws restricting visits to Chernobyl. The most restrictive is that you can’t enter any buildings, due to the risk of collapse and in some cases high radiation levels.
I tracked down a guide who, back in the day, used to help people cross in and out of the Zone illegally. He and I thought similarly: safety and site preservation is important, but rules are more meant as guidelines. He promised me an experience to remember.
I got up early for the two-hour drive to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and after going through a couple of military checkpoints, we were in. My guide agreed to take me in the buildings and to show me places we were forbidden to access. On one condition: that I listened to him unquestioningly. There were three potential risks, all of which we’d eventually encounter: military surveillance, squatters, and radioactivity.
We spent the morning exploring Chernobyl town, known for its memorials and an abandoned orphanage. We stopped at the side of the road by a forest (you aren’t supposed to stray from the road). “Time for a hike!” my guide told me. “It’s probably okay. Keep your Geiger counter out just in case. And don’t touch the trees.”
After a little while, we emerged in a clearing filled with cabins painted with Soviet children’s characters. We were at an abandoned summer camp that isn’t sanctioned for site visits. The eerie dissonance of the smiling animal paintings with rusted playground equipment and dilapidated cabins – with our counters beeping in the background – is something I’ll always remember.
We drove to Reactor 4, the site of the main explosion. The reactor is encased in a sarcophagus; you can get close, but need special approval to go inside. I snapped some photos, did a mandatory radiation check, then we ate and headed back out.
Soviet Military Base
The next stop was a secret Soviet military base. This was our first proper encounter with the military: “When we go in the buildings here, we must not be seen,” my guide said. We started exploring, a few times having to leave hastily after we heard soldiers coming. We saw abandoned offices, interrogation rooms, computer headquarters, and a gulag. Red stars, now long faded, hung everywhere as ghosts of the militaristic might of the former Soviet Union.
I climbed up a rusting ladder to get a view from the roof and my phone, which had been at 100% charge, went black with a completely dead battery. “That’s what happens if it gets too close to radiation,” my guide shrugged when I got back down.
We were sleeping overnight in the Zone, so we went to our guesthouse, had dinner, and prepared for an early morning.
The next day we explored Pripyat, the famous town near the reactor. The 50,000 people living there were evacuated in two days, and it’s home to some of the most recognizable landmarks in the Zone. We saw the iconic abandoned amusement park, the stadium, the theatre, the pool and sports centre, the hotel, the grocery store, the cultural centre, the restaurant, the school, and the prison.
Every location is filled with history: the cultural centre still has giant paintings of Soviet leaders; the grocery store still has shopping carts and check-out lanes. The school still has children’s clothing and thousands upon thousands of books, which over the years have come together to completely fill the hallways. Some of the debris is staged for tourists (for instance, an entire room of gas masks), but the creep factor is very real.
Apartments, Still in Use
After exploring the school, my guide took me to a block of apartment buildings. He said that the buildings are still illegally in use by drug users, the homeless, and self-settlers who have refused to leave the Zone. He said that periodically the military does sweeps and burns any units that show signs of occupancy. At one point he’d brought in a bed and made a crash-pad, which one night was torched. The people squatting here don’t take kindly to visitors, and neither does the military.
After verifying that we hadn’t been followed, he told me I had some time to explore the building. “If you see anyone,” he said, “you run.” There was a mix of units that were abandoned, units that had been burnt, and units that were clearly still in use, some with beds and portable cooking stoves. Drug paraphernalia and vodka bottles were littered throughout. I went up to the crumbling roof to get a view of the city, then ran into my guide in the hallway, who was looking nervously for me. “I think someone’s here,” he said quietly. “It’s time to go.”
After we left we still had some time, so I asked if I could see the hospital. The hospital is where the first responders went the night of the explosion and is one of the most radioactive places in the entire Zone. It’s strictly off-limits because of safety concerns. My guide’s tone immediately changed. “The hospital?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. “It’s not safe. Too much radiation. It’s boarded up. It’s the most dangerous place here.” Undeterred, I pushed on, “So…we can’t?”
He gave me an odd expression between a smile and a frown. “…No. I didn’t say that. You don’t have a respirator so you’ll have to make do with a mask. But I guess we can break in.” This time, though, he had rules. “We can’t linger. Keep your mask on at all times. The Geiger counter is your life in there. If I tell you to get out, you leave immediately. No exposed skin. We can’t be seen. And don’t touch anything.”
We made our way there, put on face masks, made a new entrance, and began quickly exploring. My Geiger counter started beeping as soon as we entered. At the waiting room and reception desk, you could imagine the doomed firemen arriving. Some of their clothes were still left on the desk. In other places, they were piled in bathtubs. My counter went crazy around the clothes, reading more than 400 times street level radiation. My guide told me that in this building it could unexpectedly spike to 20,000 times.
We moved through the building, seeing abandoned x-rays, gurneys, hospital rooms, decontamination showers, surgical tables, medical instruments, and room after room of gynaecology equipment. I saw a logbook sitting on a shelf and opened it, maybe against my better judgment. That was when the magnitude of what I was seeing finally hit me.
The logbook told an horrific story. The official story of Pripyat is that the hospital was closed immediately. But as I read, I realised that for several months after the disaster, pregnant women from across the Zone were transported to the hospital, which at that point had just one purpose. The logbook detailed the names of hundreds upon hundreds of women, their ages, and, beside each, “аборт”: “abortion”. This is just one of many untold stories of Chernobyl.
I think I realised at that moment that abandoned places are more than just cool locations to explore. Chernobyl is more than just disaster tourism. This place, like all places, tells real human stories – stories that it’s important to let in. According to the USSR, the official death toll from the disaster is 31, but the impacts run far deeper. As we left and went through our final radiation check (slightly elevated but within safe limits), that’s what I was left with – and it’s something that will always stay in my mind.
by: Clark Kelly*
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*this article was submitted to us by an adventurer who wanted their story told, but wishes to remain anonymous.