We arrived at the first checkpoint, two hours north of Kyiv, on the road to the site of the largest nuclear disaster in history. The door of our 15-seater van slid open and sub-zero temperatures invaded the cosy interior. Equally jarring, top- 40 music blasted from a small wooden roadside shop; one of few structures on this flat, uninhabited landscape. The song in question, Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, seemed a distasteful choice to welcome visitors’ ears. Kitschy souvenirs featured cartoon animals in aggressive stances sporting gas masks. Yellow and black radiation warning signs provided backgrounds to cheap fridge magnets and keyrings. I sighed, fearful that a suitably sombre experience was going to be replaced with sensationalised gawking.

This blog is the eighth of a series tracing our journey over land and sea to Australia, starting in Ukraine. We’re hoping to make the foreign familiar for you by showcasing the unique and universal details of the places we go and the people we meet. To get all our posts, videos, and exclusive content, subscribe to our weekly newsletter here. For short, absorbing snippets of our adventure follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We went with the tour operator Go 2 Chernobyl on our day trip*.

Data.

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” – Joseph Stalin

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” – Mother Theresa

While the numbers regarding Chernobyl might not necessarily bring you to tears, they’re astonishing nevertheless. The amount of radiation released from the reactor explosion in 1986, as a result of an unnecessary stress-test gone wrong, was 100 times greater than the combined radiation of both atom bombs dropped on Japan during WWII. To this day, 2600 square kilometres (about the size of Luxembourg), remains uninhabitable as a result of the radiation released from the exploded reactor.

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were permanently evacuated and rehoused. Some ended up in far away cities within the Soviet Union, while others remained closer in a purpose-built city called Slavutych. The initial shock of being methodically and rapidly upheaved from their homes was compounded by misinformation given by the Soviet authorities. Residents were in the dark about what the problem was, how much danger they were in, where they were being taken, and how long for.

Numbers of victims vary greatly, even from reputable organisations like the WHO and the UN. It’s widely accepted that ascertaining an accurate number of people affected is nearly impossible due to the Soviet Union’s attempt to conceal the disaster from both the outside word and its own citizens. Indeed, it was the Swedes who first brought the disaster to the world’s attention after detecting heightened radiation levels at their own nuclear plants. After asking plants in their neighboring countries if they were having issues and getting a negative from them (including the Soviet Union) they then set about investigating and identifying the source of the radiation using wind patterns and satellite images. At which point the gig was up for the U.S.S.R. This cloaking of the truth means we’ll probably never know exactly how disastrous Chernobyl truly was. Our best guesses at the moment go as high as seven million victims spread across Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

In 2011, Ukrainian authorities decided that radiation levels were low enough to safely visit the disaster site on a day trip. And tourism to Chernobyl has been booming ever since, becoming Ukraine’s biggest tourist attraction. 60,000 people visited in 2017 and that number is expected to grow to about 80,000 for 2018.

Surface scratching.

Before coming to Ukraine, I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened at Chernobyl. I often got the event confused with the disaster in Bhopal, India, which happened two years prior to Chernobyl and is considered to be the world’s worst industrial accident. So, before our day trip, we did some reading online before heading to the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv to try to gain a better understanding before heading to the actual disaster site.

While purchasing our tickets, which were a few dollars each, I attempted to save $3, by insisting we didn’t need an audio-guide. With a roll of her eyes and a smug smile the friendly ticket clerk gave me a look that said she knew we’d be back for the guide. We walked into the first exhibit and, alas, didn’t miraculously become fluent in Ukrainian. I returned sheepishly and purchased an audio-guide from the ticket clerk who, I suspected, got some morbid enjoyment out of this routine.

Documenting the events with moving imagery and a comprehensive, if not laborious, 100-minute audioguide, the museum evoked emotions immediately. Individual stories of those who perished combating the blaze induced by the exploding reactor was a sobering start. Photos of youthful soldiers were labelled with small, grim, yellow-and-red radiation stickers. The audioguide informed us these stickers indicated the individuals who’d died of acute radiation poisoning.

Through our audio guide we learned these individuals worked selflessly to minimize the radiation leaking from the reactor as well as prevent the explosion of a second nearby reactor. They potentially saved the lives of millions with their noble efforts, but paid the most unenviable of prices. Dying of radiation poisoning comes in stages. The initial stage includes vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, sweating, muscle aches, and fatigue. Then, peculiarly, for a few surreal hours, the victims feel completely fine. The nurses said some were laughing and joking together. Their bodies were in what’s know as a latency period. At this point, their body isn’t sure if the radiation is good or bad. So, it waits to react, operating as normal, giving one the impression of good health.

Due to the extreme level of radiation Chernobyl victims were exposed to, death came relatively rapidly, putting an abrupt end to the latency period. Those who received the highest doses died within 24 hours, but not before enduring seizures and massive blood and electrolyte loss through excruciating diarrhoea and vomiting. It seemed a particularly unfair way to die, having saved millions from more nuclear fallout.

The museum wrapped up by calling for an international movement to seriously examine whether the short-term benefits of cheap nuclear energy are worth the potential long-term costs, which are paid for with money and lives. A world map spread across the substantial ceiling with Small LED lights illuminating hundreds of nuclear plants worldwide. It dramatically highlighted the terrifyingly pervasive and hazardous energy source.

It was an absorbing, informative museum. I mistakenly aligned my expectations of our day-trip to Chernobyl with the museum’s thought-provoking and reflective experience.

A day out.

The following day we met our tour group at a crisp 7:20 am outside Kyiv’s main train station. We were herded into our van and given our Geiger counter which we used to measure radiation levels throughout the day. It’s various readings and beeping became the source of a chronically elevated heart rate for Beth. It’s five settings were explained in three seconds by a gentleman who spoke quickly enough to give location coordinates to a passing jet. I couldn’t concentrate on listening also due to his strong resemblance to Willy Wonka in the original Chocolate Factory movie. The addition of a brown top hat and purple jacket would’ve convinced me we’d scored a golden ticket.

We were then introduced to our guide for the day who spoke with a tone and rhythm requiring unwavering concentration. He clearly had a fantastic grasp of the English vocabulary but spoke without any pause, tone, or pitch. I’m a terrible listener at the best of times, no one would ever describe me as an auditory learner. I gave it my best effort though. I listened very carefully, staring at his lips and focusing hard on each sentence, repeating it in my head to try to understand the meaning. I tried valiantly to keep up with his electrically-paced spiel but, inevitably, my mind wandered momentarily and I lost the entire dialogue.

“There are three zones. Chernobyl zone. Danger zone. Extreme danger zone,” our guide stated in a casual monotone that contrasted his alarming dialogue. My mind wandered briefly and I didn’t catch the following lines so I’ve no idea how extremely dangerous (or not) our day got.

Our speedy guide proceeded to put on a surprisingly absorbing documentary about the Chernobyl disaster which made the 2-hour drive pleasantly zoom by. For me the highlight was the outraged running commentary from Beth when Mikhael Gorbachev, the leader of the USSR at the time, made an appearance on screen. He was mostly attempting to justify the cruel decisions the Soviet Union made while trying to contain and conceal the disaster.

Slow start.

Showing our passports and ticket, we passed through multiple checkpoints as we neared the site of the reactor. This became a routine, tedium amplified by waiting in line in the Ukrainian winter. Our first non-checkpoint stop was the city of Chernobyl’s famous sign (Chernobyl was the name of a small town as well as the nuclear facility). As tourists giddily snapped away, I failed to feel the hype of this small, blue-and-white brick, Cyrillic sign. I took a picture because it felt awkward not to.

Chernobyl’s town sign. Maybe if I tilt the camera it’ll look more ominous.

Next stop was an outdoor exhibit proudly showcasing antiquated, utilitarian-looking robots. They could have been the rejected extras from Bob the Builder. Their unassuming appearance gave no clue to their significant contribution to minimizing risk to human life during the disaster clean up. These robots were used for clearing radioactive waste that landed on nearby buildings after the explosion. Shortly, though, the robots succumbed to the high levels of radiation and broke down. What seemed to be missing from this robot graveyard was something dedicated to the thousands of soldiers who were forced to clear the rooftop after the robots succumbed to the radiation. Several thousand of these soldiers died in the following years as a result of their exposure to extreme radiation levels. It was bizarre and unsettling to be paying homage to a few inanimate objects with no sign of the human sacrifice.

At this point in the tour, our Geiger counter let out a quiet but concerning beeping sound accompanied by a small red flashing LED. It was displaying a reading of 0.3. Given our modest understanding of how the thing worked we were unsure if this was cause for alarm. Regardless, Beth’s pulse quickened. Trying to remain calm she interrupted a conversation our guide was having with other guests to ask if this was something to be concerned about. He gave a small smile and said it was fine. I could see on Beth’s face she wasn’t convinced, particularly because neither of us could understand his explanation as to why we were fine. The speed with which he spoke, the lack of intonation (which I now have a whole new appreciation for) combined with the technical terms made it impossible for us to understand his scientific reassurance. Beth quickly got back on the bus and began questioning her decision to come on what she was now perceiving to be an unnecessarily perilous day trip.

The reactor.

I found the reactor underwhelming. It’s covered by an enormous light-grey, radiation proof sarcophagus. At 100 metres tall and 165 metres long it looked like a nondescript, indoor football stadium or a large coke can cut in half lengthways, lying in an industrial park. According to our guide, this structure is expected to contain the radiation which is continually being emitted by the reactor for another 100 years.

Our now chronically beeping Geiger counter showed a reading of 0.8. Beth insisted we retreat to the van where the reading lowered to a more palatable 0.5. I did my best to keep her outside long enough to start a photo series with her I’ll unimaginatively title: Panic With The Geiger Counter. I snickered with delight at her seemingly irrational alarm. In truth though, how was I to know the beeping Geiger counter wasn’t concerning? Our guide didn’t seem nervous, but Beth had already decided her radiation threshold was well below his. Perhaps I was falling into the trap of treating Chernobyl like a novelty; a potentially photogenic amusement park.

Beth, looking unimpressed with the incessant Geiger counter and the sarcophagus in the background. C’mon Beth, give us a smile.

We stopped for lunch at the only canteen inside the exclusion zone. To gain entry, one must pass through a radiation scanner that looked like a prop from the original Frankenstein movies. A small yellow light blinked to indicate we were safe enough to proceed to lunch. The canteen was a sparse, Sovietesque affair with Babushkas hurriedly ladling watery soup into bowls and slopping chicken and canned vegetables onto small plates.

As we sat, prodding our unappetizing meal, we reflected on what a slightly bland experience it had been so far. The things we’d seen were exactly what we’d expected, yet we felt unmoved, and we were unsure why. Maybe that’s the day’s lesson around the dangers of radiation- our five primitive senses can’t detect it. So, we were left to our insufficient imaginations and sterile Geiger counters to try to interpret the full horror of Chernobyl. I tried to remain optimistic, thinking the abandoned city of Prypyat might bring the human touch I needed to a catastrophe I wasn’t quite feeling the magnitude of.

Pripyat.

The nearest city to the reactor, Pripyat, was inhabited by approximately 50,000 people at the time of the explosion in 1986. Frozen by bureaucracy, poor communication, and pride the Soviet Union took two full days to finally evacuate the city’s residents. To this day, Pripyat is uninhabitable. It’s the chilling ghost town you might’ve seen in an blog, vlog, magazine, documentary, or news clip associated with the disaster.

32 years on, overrun with trees and bushes, it’s an odd sight. So much time has passed, it now looks like someone tried to build a city in a forest rather than a forest has taken over a city. It’s an apocalyptic site certainly, but one that comes long enough after human habitation that it inspired the emotionless curiosity I’d approach geology with rather than the soul-stirring effects that come with visiting the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields in Cambodia or Auschwitz’s ominous train tracks.

We walked through the desolate city for an hour, taking in an abandoned supermarket, bleak apartments, and ransacked department stores. Anything of value – particularly metal – had been illegally removed. Our Airbnb host, Kateryna, informed us later that many vehicles in Pripyat had their engines removed and sold on to unsuspecting customers who are now driving around Ukraine with dangerous levels of radiation emanating from the hood of their car. I wondered where all the other ransacked items ended up.

In my head, the missing radioactive metal to construct a town of 50,000 people seemed substantial enough for some sort of national emergency to locate and remove such items. No such efforts are forthcoming and I wondered if it was now suitable to join in Beth’s hysteria at the dangers of not just being at Chernobyl, but also anywhere in Ukraine.

The culmination of the tour is the infamously abandoned and rusting amusement park. The park was somewhat unsettling to wander through, but I felt like I’d been here already because of the numerous posters, websites, videos, and blogs I’d seen it in. I felt unshaken by what I was seeing. I seemed doomed to be hardened to any feelings around Chernobyl. Does the world’s worst nuclear disaster not ring anything inside me? Perhaps I should’ve visited victims of the disaster rather than their abandoned homes to feel the humanity within myself and within the tragedy. A human touch was absent from every aspect of the day, I still can’t articulate why or what could be done differently to elicit emotion.

If you’ve only seen one image of Pripyat, it’s probably this. Interestingly, the ferris wheel was never used. It was built for the May Day celebrations that were supposed to commence a few days after the reactor exploded.

Workplace hazards.

During the times the group was allowed to wander through an area alone, we seized the opportunity to try and ask our guide a few questions. Beth inquired about how long he’d been coming to Chernobyl, to which he replied: Legally or illegally?

Having repeatedly snuck into the exclusion zone as an overly curious teen, our guide has spent many years exploring the decaying cities of Prypat and Chernobyl but also many years absorbing the radiation still being released. This made me curious about his feelings around the daily exposure to radiation he receives while guiding these tours. He said he takes iodine tablets, which helps absorb radiation in the body, and that he avoids certain parts of Chernobyl he knows are hot spots for high radiation levels. He seemed confident that he wouldn’t suffer any long-term effects. It was difficult to read how nonchalant or serious he took it due to the flat, speedy dialogue. Beth looked at him, seemingly picturing him with the twelve toes and three heads she presumed he’d grow in the next few years.

Beth was now particularly curious about the radiation, given she was quite animated as our Geiger counter seemed to display increasingly higher numbers as the day wore on. One particular spot, which Beth sprinted from, hit a seemingly outrageous 50.0. We had no context other than that the alarm on the device starts beeping at .3. So, in Beth’s eyes, 50.0 should warrant adopting an every-person-for-themselves attitude while commandeering the van, speeding out of the city with me clinging to the side mirror.

The geiger counter hitting .73 as we enter Prypat. C’mon Beth, it can’t be that bad, can it?

But Beth managed to get a hold of her reeling mind and while no longer attempting to restrain the tension and panic in her voice, asked if it was negligent for our guide to take us near some of these high spots. Our guide assured her, that to be affected by the worst spots one would need to camp on them for a month, eating and drinking openly to consume radiation particles. With our guide seemingly moving the safety numbers up through the day, Beth’s skepticism increased in equal proportions. It was becoming clear to me that no matter what our guide said, Beth wouldn’t feel safe until we’d left Eastern Europe.

While attempting to divert Beth’s attention from our incessantly beeping Geiger counter, I asked our guide what he thought about nuclear energy. He very diplomatically responded that it was expensive to get started but cheap to run and provided a lot of power. Beth’s mouth proceeded to hang open. She was confounded that he didn’t have some sort of impassioned speech prepared one way or the other.

“But, yes, it’s very dangerous,” he added, sensing Beth’s bewilderment at such a methodical analysis.

I, on the other hand, thought it was commendable he provided evidence rather than opinion. Often I find we’re pressured to feel we must have an opinion on everything regardless of our knowledge on the subject matter. Maybe he believes it can be done safely? Maybe he’s indifferent? He informed us earlier on the tour that his job is well paying by Ukrainian standards. Maybe he doesn’t want to put that in jeopardy in any way by showering visitors with biased opinions?

It’s hard to know, but our guide was very knowledgeable, proud to show us Chernobyl, and very responsive to Beth’s stream of questions and concerns. It’s difficult to imagine he didn’t have some sort of opinion, regardless of how closely held it may be.

Scanning.

After seven hours in the exclusion zone, and one final radiation scan (deeming us non-radioactive enough to be allowed to rejoin the rest of the world) we piled into our 15-seater van and headed home.

As I casually moved through the radiation scanner, I felt indifferent to the potential dangers of our day trip. Interestingly, Beth spent most of the day alarmed by the Geiger counter readings and anxiously wondering how much radiation we were actually being exposed to, but these things caused me no concern. It makes me wonder if, perhaps, Beth is more acutely aware of an abstract danger than I am.

While the museum in Kyiv moved me, Chernobyl fell short. The day felt methodical and manufactured. I wondered if story-telling was the missing piece that felt powerfully absent. For me, one moving anecdotal journey that represents the bigger picture is more likely to spark feelings. I think many might feel the same way when I reflect on how passive the world was reading about large numbers of Syrian refugees perishing in the Mediterranean, but one photo of a drowned boy washed up on a beach sparked an incomparable international outcry. One story activated the emotions of many.

Beth was quiet and pensively looking out the window as we were leaving – unusual behaviour for an energetic extrovert. I enquired as to the role reversal.

“Just thinking about the thyroid cancer I might be getting,” she solemnly replied sighing deeply, resigned and emotionally drained from our perpetually beeping Geiger counter which, thankfully, had just been collected and switched off.

We sat in silence as the bus bounded us back to Kyiv through the dark, wooded countryside.

Why we went.

I can only speak for one of Chernobyl’s visitors this year. Although, it certainly is tempting to speak for others. I watched some strike shameless poses with pouty lips, snapping selfies at sites where sombre reflection might have been more appropriate. I wondered what their intentions for making this day trip were. A greater understanding of the Chernobyl disaster? Or a ‘like’ worthy photo for Instagram? It was hard to say.

I wondered if the unsuitable tone set by tour operators and souvenir shops dictated this flippant reaction in some visitors. Companies advertising trips to Chernobyl often use branding and wording that seems more congruent with a ziplining adventure or a hedonistic stag weekend. “Megacool photos are guaranteed,” and, “Get your dose of adrenaline,” are some of the many promises emblazoned across tour operators’ websites.

Err, radioactive ice cream anyone?

Getting off my high horse and speaking for myself, I wanted to go to Chernobyl for the same reasons I’m interested in any form of dark tourism. We patron art galleries and professional sporting events that demonstrate how high we can go, patronising dark tourist sites, such as Chernobyl and Auschwitz, show us how low we can go. I believe these tourist sites represent potential red flags for humanity looking forward. For me, Chernobyl is a living testament to the idea that we’re very intelligent but can be preposterously unwise in tandem.

Maybe we can draw parallels in the future and stop ourselves from repeating mistakes by looking at the lead-up to previous disasters. When heads of state start blaming minorities for economic problems, we can look at Auschwitz and see the parallel rhetoric spouted by leaders in the lead up to The Holocaust. When we consider building more nuclear power plants, with companies grandiosely guaranteeing safety, they should perhaps take a closer look at Chernobyl (perhaps the museum rather than the site itself).

“Civilisation is in a race between education and catastrophe.” H. G. Wells.

←Ukraine part 7: A boy at war.

Ukraine part 9: Armed for Armageddon. →

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And finally here are some links we think you might find useful:

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For our comprehensive guide on how to support local people, travel responsibly, and have a great time doing it, click here.

We love to use Airbnb when we travel. if you haven’t tried it yet here’s a small credit to get you started.

Travel insurance is a complex subject and should be apart of your research before heading anywhere. We wrote a comprehensive blog here to give you the tools to make a decision. We recommend World Nomads.

*While we received 50% off our tour from Go 2 Chernobyl as bloggers, we would still recommend them for their excellent organisation and professionalism. From the research we’ve done, they seemed the best value for money.


Joel & Beth

We're two lifelong, wandering nomads who make videos and blogs about our travels. We try to connect with, support and understand local people while learning about how history impacts them. We also love a good meal and learning about how food impacts culture. We hope you love what you're watching and reading so much that you shut your laptop, grab your bag, and come and explore this beautiful, delicate planet.

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