Whether you are completely addicted to Chernobyl Diaries and want to check out the real thing, love dark tourism or are just visiting Ukraine, a day trip to Chernobyl should be on your list. We took this once-in-a-lifetime day trip to Chernobyl in 2013 and its strange blend of life and death, light and dark, have stayed with me ever since.
- 1 What Happened at Chernobyl Reactor No.4?
- 2 What Happened After the Chernobyl Disaster?
- 3 …Why Would You Want a Day Trip to Chernobyl!?
- 4 So, Can You Tour Chernobyl?
- 5 …Is Chernobyl Safe to Visit?
- 6 People Live In Chernobyl?
- 7 What is The Best Tour Company to visit Chernobyl With?
- 8 Our Day Trip to Chernobyl with SoloEast
- 9 Getting to Chernobyl
- 10 Welcome to Chernobyl Town
- 11 The Nature of Chernobyl
- 12 Visiting Reactor No.4 – Ground Zero for the Chernobyl Disaster
- 13 The Workers of Chernobyl
- 14 Kopachi Kindergarten – The Photo Op
- 15 Liquidator Statue – A Fitting Memorial
- 16 Lunch in Chernobyl
- 17 Visiting Pripyat – The Town Where Time Stands Still
- 18 The Ruins of Pripyat – The Fair of Nightmares
- 19 The Red Forest
- 20 Getting Back to Kiev from Chernobyl
- 21 What to Pack for a Day Trip to Chernobyl
- 22 Information for Your Day Trip to Chenobyl
- 23 Final Thoughts on Our Day Trip to Chernobyl
What Happened at Chernobyl Reactor No.4?
In the early hours of 26th April 1986, a safety test was run in reactor no.4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It had been planned for the day before but was delayed until the next shift was on the site. The test was being conducted to help pinpoint and solve known flaws with the Soviet reactor design. Power outages were common towards the end of Soviet rule and so it was vital they find a way to ensure the reactor remained cool between a loss of mains electric and the generators kicking in.
The workers that night were not fully briefed, vital safety systems had been switched off, and the whole test was rushed. They made fatal mistakes that allowed the reactor core to overheat, causing an unstoppable nuclear reaction. Two large explosions blasted the reactor open and subsequently set it ablaze, a fire that lasted 9 days. Radioactive smoke and fallout pumped into the atmosphere and the USSR decided to keep it quiet. More on that later…
What Happened After the Chernobyl Disaster?
The first that the rest of Europe knew of the danger carried on the wind was when Sweden reported it two days later. Forsmark, a Swedish nuclear plant alerted the government about unusually high levels of nuclear isotopes they wouldn’t normally detect. Sweden contacted the USSR, who continued to deny the accident.
The rain that fell across Sweden was contaminated and the radiation affected the food supply chain that summer. Reindeer were particularly affected (no, that isn’t how Rudolph got his weird red nose). Lichen is very good at absorbing radioactivity and it is this lichen that reindeer LOVE to eat. That year 80% of the reindeer meat bound for sale was destroyed as it was highly radioactive and too dangerous to eat. Eventually, the Soviets admitted what had happened and an exclusion zone was set up. Access to a 30km zone around the disaster area was restricted, and a smaller zone (10km) even more so.
With all that…
…Why Would You Want a Day Trip to Chernobyl!?
When I told my mother that Mr Fluskey and I were intending to take a Chernobyl day tour, her reaction wasn’t positive. Somewhere between disapproval, shock and puzzlement; there is no emoji that would cover it. Memories of the late 1980s and the fear the disaster created still ripples across her features. She was very newly pregnant with yours truly when it happened.
However, I am an insatiable dark tourist. If something seems a tiny bit dangerous, dark or morbid, I am awfully tempted to see it for myself.
Originally our trip in 2013 was meant to be to Romania, but when the idea of visiting Chernobyl took hold, we replanned the whole thing. We started the whole holiday at Chernobyl, travelled through Ukraine and ended up in Transnistria (another stellar dark tourist location) that you can read about here.
So, Can You Tour Chernobyl?
Absolutely! Not only can you tour Chernobyl, but we think you should tour Chernobyl! It is a fascinating day tour unlike any we have taken elsewhere. This is not a self-guided excursion, you must sign up with a tour company. They will ensure you have a safe and enjoyable day, as well as giving you a thorough education about the Chernobyl disaster (if you needed more than that tiny introduction at the beginning of this post).
“Hang on, you said safe”…
…Is Chernobyl Safe to Visit?
We were worried about the amount of radiation we would be exposing ourselves to but the guide told us a fact that both amazed and horrified us.
“You will be getting as much radiation today as you would flying between London and New York”.
Now, we fly rather a lot so I am now wondering just how much radiation I have coursing through my veins…but I digress. There are areas of higher radioactivity and you won’t be allowed to spend that much time there.
There is obviously some radiation; the tour guides can only work in the area for half of the week. They do tours for 3 or 4 days and then take the rest of the week off. The people who work and live in the research facility in Chernobyl Town spend 15 days on location and then 15 days living elsewhere.
Wait a Second…
People Live In Chernobyl?
That’s right, people actually live in Chernobyl. There are the researchers as mentioned above, they reside in Chernobyl Town inside the 10km exclusion zone. However, their time there is limited and monitored.
There is another group of residents who don’t limit their time in the area. After the disaster, a small but determined group of senior citizens decided to return to their homes (in fact, some never left when the area was cleared). These Samosely (self-settlers) grow crops here and lead solitary but happy lives in this supposedly hostile territory.
Ready to visit Chernobyl for yourself?
What is The Best Tour Company to visit Chernobyl With?
We wholeheartedly recommend SoloEast for your day trip to Chernobyl. We did lots of research before choosing them and we had a great experience with them. They have been running tours to the exclusion zone since 1999 so they have plenty of experience.
Our Day Trip to Chernobyl with SoloEast
Getting to Chernobyl
We met the group in Independence Square (Maiden).
The representative checked our passports and gave us a wristband each. These weren’t to indicate our all-inclusive drinks package, or to help us if we got lost. I think they were just so we could get excited about the day ahead. Together we boarded the bus and began our two-hour journey to the exclusion zone.
To pass the time, and get everyone clued up, the bus TVs showed a documentary all about the Chernobyl disaster. It was a very dramatic documentary with lots of re-enactments and loud, urgent classical music. It was just right!
The chaps behind us were in town for the England vs Ukraine match that had filled up Kiev with football louts. They chatted loudly, sang football chants and generally made a racket. We struggled to hear the video over them but there were subtitles so at least we could read along.
On entering the exclusion zone, we stopped at a checkpoint and had our passports checked. Without your passport, you aren’t going to get in so don’t forget yours!
Welcome to Chernobyl Town
Just before leaving Kiev, we had been given our assigned Geiger counters.
These measure radiation in the surrounding area and communicate the result through a numerical reading and by the frequency of a clicking noise. As we waited to disembark our bus, Geiger counters were clutched eagerly in anticipation. On the ground, they started to click enthusiastically and the tour group grinned at each other with knowing dark tourism glints in their eyes.
I think most of the group were expecting a run down and ragged settlement in Chernobyl Town. We were slightly surprised to see a well kept and neat little community.
However, this is a small section of town and if you wander off the beaten path, you are very quickly in a wilder environment. We ventured down the road slowly, stopping to take photos of the houses; looted many years ago, and overgrown they were in a state of disrepair. After a few minutes, we heard a distant animal howl, followed swiftly by another. Perhaps a dog or a wolf, it was time to retreat back to civilisation.
The Nature of Chernobyl
One amazing aspect of the exclusion zone is the way Mother Nature has staked her claim. Of course, the radiation had a devastating impact on some areas but in others, the effects were short-lived and the following years without human interference gave nature a chance to bounce back. Packs of wolves roam the woods, reclaiming old hunting grounds, small mammal numbers are back to normal and plants flourish in and around the structures crumbling in old villages. There are contradicting studies highlighting issues for certain species related to radiation but overall the picture seems to be unexpectedly good.
Visiting Reactor No.4 – Ground Zero for the Chernobyl Disaster
It began to rain a little en route to our second stop and so we jumped down from the bus with heads bowed. Looking up we saw reactor No.4, vast and dark beneath the concrete sarcophagus that was built to secure it and stop radiation from escaping.
There was a small memorial here and our guide advised us to stay behind it as the wind was blowing over from the reactor. We were all a little sceptical but when the wind gusted, the Geiger counters clicked faster. The concrete sarcophagus had been deteriorating and failing for years and so new plans were underway.
To our right, a huge, HUGE structure was being constructed. The New Safe Confinement (new shelter) is ~150m tall and is designed to fit both the reactor and sarcophagus inside it. This will allow them to be deconstructed safely. The structure was lying to the west when we visited but was moved into position in 2016, it took almost two weeks…I told you it was big! It was tested in April 2019 and it seems to be effective but I don’t think it is in full use as of this post.
The Workers of Chernobyl
After gazing in wonder at the reactor and the seemingly endless stream of workers passing through a staff entrance, we were ushered back to the bus.
I was wondering how the workers spent time in such close proximity to the epicentre of the accident. It turns out they have a strict roster and are only allowed a certain dosage of radiation per month and year. According to Wikipedia, spending just 12 minutes up above the roof where the concrete sarcophagus leaks, will result in a full year’s allowance!
Kopachi Kindergarten – The Photo Op
It is easy to get swept up in the myths behind the Chernobyl disaster when you are on a day trip to Chernobyl. The devastation of anything to do with children is very affecting, but I couldn’t help but suspect a little window dressing here. Inside the kindergarten building, papers were strewn across the rooms and the bunk beds stood bare. I guess this was also looted years ago.
However, outside lies a doll, missing some of her tiny plastic limbs. I wonder when it appeared here for the tourist’s delight…maybe that is too cynical and it was abandoned by a three-year-old when she was evacuated. Either way, I snapped it with gusto and hovered the Geiger counter over the area squealing with delight as the numbers rose. As I boarded the bus, I imagined whacking a vintage, black and white filter over the pictures to increase the dramatic gravitas of the photos.
Liquidator Statue – A Fitting Memorial
The spot that I found genuinely moving was the memorial to the first responders. It shows the firemen who tackled the blaze. These brave men rushed into the fire without a clear sense of just what they were facing. On the other side, plant workers are depicted. This structure documents them beautifully. I think it’s a shame that it is stuck within the exclusion zone and is therefore unseen by the wider world.
Lunch in Chernobyl
We were treated to traditional Ukrainian dishes. The tastes of potato and beetroot were prominent. All of the food was brought from outside the exclusion zone, they were very keen to stress this! It wasn’t the best food ever but it was filing and included in the price so no complaints here!
Visiting Pripyat – The Town Where Time Stands Still
This was undoubtedly my favourite part of our day trip to Chernobyl. It was sad, interesting, creepy and cool all at once.
Pripyat was the closest city to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and was built to serve it. Most of the residents worked at the plant and enjoyed a lovely Soviet life. Pripyat was a model town with great communal facilities like the Palace of Culture, Azure Swimming Complex and Avanhard Stadium. We were not allowed to enter the buildings as they were too dangerous by 2013.
In fact, the town was preparing for the official opening of a new fun fair on 1st May. 1st May was a special day in the calendar of the USSR, marking Labour Day or workers day. Preparations were underway for a big parade and the posters are still visible. The vintage Soviet paintings were just as you’d imagine.
The Ruins of Pripyat – The Fair of Nightmares
Entering Pripyat on foot, we meandered through the old concrete buildings; monoliths to the Soviet ideals ravaged by time and conquered by vegetation. The ghost town had a calming effect on the group, even the football lads were quiet as we stepped carefully through the rubble. We picked our way around to the funfair, bumper cars rusting and abandoned, the creaking Ferris wheel looming over us. On the grey September afternoon, it was very atmospheric and satisfyingly creepy. We rather ruined it by running around like small children with our Geiger counters, waving them over patches of moss that were giving out large readings.
We learnt that the population of Pripyat (roughly 49,000) weren’t evacuated immediately. Families still swam in the pools, played outside and looked forward to their go on the new rides popping up around the corner. Instead, buses only arrived to move them 36 hours later on 27th April. Most of them didn’t even know they were to be moved permanently so they didn’t pack their belongings properly, assuming they would be back in a day or two. They were never permitted to return.
The Red Forest
The area that was most affected by the Chernobyl disaster was a pine forest that was all but killed off. The pine needles turned a dirty rust colour and small mammals and insects were wiped out. We stood on a road bridge here, staring at the forest, still unrecovered. The Geiger counters clicked furiously as the wind blew through the trees, in our direction. We were quickly directed back to the bus.
Getting Back to Kiev from Chernobyl
We sped through a desolate area apparently high in radiation. The guide asked if we wanted to open the windows and test the air. In the morning, this would have freaked the busload of tourists out, but at this late stage of the day, we were all keen to see just how high the counters would go. Someone stuck their Geiger counter out of the window and it read 25. That was considerably higher than anything else we had seen…we closed the window rather swiftly.
As we left the exclusion zone, we once again passed through the checkpoint. We were asked to leave the bus and exit through the building. Inside there was a line of strange metal machines. These dosimeters (yes, that’s a real word) check the levels of radiation on a person. The group had to step into the contraptions one by one and wait for the green light. The metal gates would then open and the person could exit. What would have happened if the light had gone red? Who knows! All I know is that, although we all laughed at the explanation, everyone left with a real sense of relief at the green light!
What to Pack for a Day Trip to Chernobyl
- Your passport – You MUST have your passport with you to go on this day tour!
- A hat – No, they don’t suit me either, but if SoloEast recommends it, I am putting one on! It doesn’t have anything fancy, just something to cover your head.
- A water bottle that has a lid – You will get lunch but drinks aren’t forthcoming. Why the lid? Well, you know, better to be safe than sorry right?
- Shoes that cover your feet – They should enclose your feet completely, be sturdy and comfortable.
- Clothes that cover your skin – I think you are getting the idea here. Basically, the less you expose, the better.
- A good camera – You will be showing these pictures off for a long time to come.
- Sun cream and an umbrella – Because you just never know!
Information for Your Day Trip to Chenobyl
- SoloEast runs tours daily from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. This is the best place to base yourself for these tours.
- The day tour of Chernobyl will last around 10 hours and includes lunch and insurance.
- A one day tour will set you back around £72/$100.
- You can pay an extra $10 for a Geiger counter. This isn’t necessary but it is kind of cool to wander around with your yellow clicker. Others in your tour group will have rented them so don’t worry if you are on a tight budget, you can just piggyback on their Geiger fun.
- SoloEast also runs two-day tours. With these, you stay overnight in the exclusion zone and get a more in-depth tour of the area.
Final Thoughts on Our Day Trip to Chernobyl
I guess this day trip isn’t for everyone, but if you have made it this far then you must be interested. In that case, you really need to get yourself booked onto a day tour of Chernobyl. Go and book your flights to Ukraine and have a great time! You will be left in awe of the majesty of human ingenuity, and stupidity.