I remember exactly what I was doing on the day of the Chernobyl explosion on Saturday April 26th 1986. The tensions of the cold war were still apparent, and the sight of smoke billowing out of a nuclear power station as the result of a nuclear explosion on the TV screens brought the fear of a nuclear holocaust just that bit closer. I even won a pub quiz final tie-breaker question some years ago on the exact date of the Chernobyl disaster, to the dismay of the opposing team. Afterwards I could hear the quizmaster behind closed doors exclaiming with total surprise that someone actually knew the correct date, as she was probably expecting at best that someone would pick a date that would be closest to the actual date.
The recent series ‘Chernobyl’ on Sky Atlantic Channel and the release of the DVD of the series last week (which I am avidly watching, currently on episode 3) has brought a renewed interest into the disaster from a tourism perspective. Two recent developments in the spring have made it that bit easier to travel to The Ukraine and to include a day trip to Chernobyl as part of the itinerary. Firstly, the introduction of direct flights from Manchester and London Stansted Airports to Kiev by Ryanair means that getting to The Ukraine hopefully should cost no more than an arm and a leg, providing you can tolerate flying with Ryanair. Secondly, a new international train service recently started running once a day linking Kiev with Lviv (Ukraine’s second city) and then on to the Polish border at Przemyśl, from where there are connections by rail on to Rzeszów (1 hr away) and to Warsaw and Krakow. This means that an interesting travel itinerary can be constructed travelling across two different countries and visiting two very interesting and different cities. We chose to fly back from Rzeszów with Ryanair to East Midlands airport, though you can fly back to London Stansted from there as well.
So we wake up early on a Monday morning in an Ibis hotel near Manchester Piccadilly station to catch the 05:59 train to Manchester airport. The flight to Kiev leaves 07:35 hrs on some days of the week, 06:00 other days, the later flight departure time just being that more palatable and manageable in terms of getting that extra hour in bed, rather than have to take a taxi to get to the airport at some unearthly hour. 3 hours later at 12.30 hrs Ukraine time we landed at sunny Kyiv Boryspil International airport, with the final approach to the airport being memorable as the plane flew over the city with fine views of the Dnieper river and the golden domes, white buildings and spires of the Kievo-Pecherska-Lavra (Caves monastery) glittering in the sunshine.
The Chernobyl day tour departs not too far from the south entrance to Kiev station, literally outside the Ibis hotel where we stayed. I recommend you stay in this hotel, it is a 7 floor structure, western-friendly and built for the recent World Cup tournament. As they say with every Ibis hotel around the world, at least with this brand you know what you are getting. The Chernobyl day tour is not cheap, costing around £80 per person, but you get a full 12 hour guided day tour, bearing in mind it takes around 2 hours to travel by coach from Kiev to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Visit http://www.chornobyl-tour.com for further details.
So at 8 in the morning on our chosen day we made our way to the departure point where there were two coaches already filling up. One thing you notice at this time is that outside in Kiev it feels and sounds busy. The station is already buzzing with people. In the UK, at this time, people are still stirring, things are just starting to get busy. After checking our passport details, and after handing over the final balance of payment for the trip in cash, the guides introduce themselves and the coaches set off. To fill time in the 2 hour journey ahead, we are shown a video of the disaster. 2 hours later we arrive at the checkpoint for entry to the 19 mile Chernobyl exclusion zone at Dytiatky, this is also the border control for Belarus. Everyone gets off the bus as passports and other documents are checked for entry into the zone, and there is a chance to buy some souvenirs or refreshments (some Chernobyl ice cream?) at nearby stalls. The coaches then proceed down a long straight road with miles upon miles of desolate forest stretching as far as the eye can see. The first point of call is the abandoned village of Zalissya. We are allowed to wander into the abandoned buildings.
An interesting diversion is to see the disused Duga military radar. This immense structure, which looks like a huge gigantic wall of pylons, can be seen for miles around, rearing up through the mist over the horizon – a surreal sight. On close inspection, it’s an enormous, dilapidated structure made up of hundreds of huge antennas and turbines. It’s one of the three Soviet ‘over the horizon’ radar stations of the early detection system against attacks of ballistic rockets. Nowadays, it feels eerie and there is a definite silence around, only punctuated by the sound of the wind passing through the gaps in the antennas and turbines above.
Before we reach the nuclear power plant, we make a call at an abandoned children’s holiday camp. The sadness of the evacuation can be felt here – drawings done by the children are littered around the rooms and there are some toy dolls left around. One of the dormitories still has small metal bunk bed frames left behind. Outside, the guide takes us a little off-piste to demonstrate the levels of radiation still present, with the Geiger counters (used to measure radiation levels and which can be hired for the day) buzzing violently. I should point out there that the organisers of the tour provide assurances that clients taking part would only receive the amounts of radiation equivalent to taking a long haul flight. But you are advised not to stray off the beaten track too much and to follow the guides as much as possible.
At last we travel alongside a large lake and the buildings of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (officially named the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in honour of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin) come into view. It’s a huge site, the main purpose of which is to generate electricity, so it includes the 4 nuclear reactors, a large lake for cooling purposes, a 600 metre long machine hall adjacent to the reactors housing the turbines to generate the electricity, and large areas of connections in the form of transformers & pylons transferring the final output to the national grid. We stop to take photos of the construction site of 2 half-completed nuclear reactors the other side of the lake, with the construction cranes half way up the tall reactors still being present. We were told that construction stopped after the explosion, and in true Soviet fashion, the cranes were just left there.
We then travel to the main administration offices of the site, and are left in no doubt that this power station was owned and built by the state, the former Soviet Union, with one of the huge circular hammer and sickle emblems guarding the entrance. Perhaps no different to the former National Coal Board (NCB) in this country? This power station was built to show off the nuclear prowess and technological capabilities of the former Soviet Union. It’s a pity we weren’t allowed to take pictures of this emblem in from of the main reception building, some habits of the old Soviet Union die hard.
Its now time for lunch, and I recommend that you include this as an add-on to the tour. Just for the experience if nothing else. But it is a long day, and I would recommend bringing some snacks with you. We enter the staff canteen of the site, and pass through a machine to check our radiation levels. The canteen is still used by workers involved in the decommissioning process on the site, due to be completed by 2065. We queue for our food, noticing the huge ovens and heavily-engineered and intricate patterns of pipework and cooling fans, again built in true Soviet functional fashion. The kitchens had to be big and functional to feed the large numbers of people who worked at the site, and I imagined that there were jobs for all the family here, with the men working in the power station and the women serving in the kitchens. The menu itself is a true Soviet culinary delight – red Borsch (red soup), a large meatball or piece of chicken, rice and a side salad, together with a glass of orange juice and a piece of cake. Not particularly appetising, but at least it fills you up.
Back on the coaches again, and we now stop at the memorial to the disaster, opposite the reactor where the explosion took place. Reactor no 4 was completely destroyed in the accident, and was initially enclosed in a concrete and lead sarcophagus casing, followed more recently by a large steel confinement shelter, to prevent further escape of radioactivity. Again, rules governing what you can photograph apply here, you are only allowed to photograph the reactor from certain angles.
We then move on with the coaches and stop to pose at a futuristic sign and emblem in seventies and soviet styling welcoming us to the (now abandoned) town of Pripyat. This town of some 40,000 inhabitants was built to house the workers of the plant and their families and was completely evacuated using 1,000 buses some 2 days after the explosion. It’s interesting to see what 30 years of nature and uninterrupted tree growth have done to the townscape. We start the walk in the main square, opposite the former People’s Palace of entertainment and leisure, where some weddings actually took place on the day of the explosion. Next we peer into a supermarket, where the trolleys are left abandoned and the supermarket shelves being left in a wrecked state. There are still some promotional posters offering price cuts. Opposite the supermarket are the offices of the local communist party. Some political posters of the day are left behind.
Pripyat was meant to be a model nuclear city, a testament to Soviet strength and ingenuity. We are told that the supermarket offered superior food and products compared to other supermarkets, with people travelling up from Kiev for the day to stock up on luxuries. Perhaps this was to entice workers with the best brains and skills in nuclear physics to come and live in the town and work at the plant. There is also an element of state paternalism left behind, that ‘the state’ built this town for the workers and therefore ‘the state knows best’. I noticed a small circular emblem of the former soviet union on every lamp post in the town, with the larger emblem placed on the top of the taller blocks of flats, presumably to remind the residents of their allegiance to the state.
A short walk takes us to the abandoned amusement park, with the rusty ferris wheel perhaps being the iconic and most-remembered symbol of the disaster. This park was due to open on 1st May 1986, but by this time the whole town had been evacuated with residents never to return. Everyone in the party had their ‘obligatory photo’ taken by the wheel.
The guides then took us to a part of the town where the shrub and tree growth made it hard to recognise what this originally was. We were told this was the town’s sports ground, and we could now make out the seating on the terraces and the turnstiles to enter the ground. Nearby we entered the abandoned swimming pool, after noticing a stray dog in the bushes. The guides are taking us a bit ‘off piste’ here, so we are warned not to stray too far for fear of some part of the building breaking loose and injuring us or someone falling through a wooden floorboard. We walk up the concrete stairs, with the sound of loose stones and concrete cracking under our boots as we walk in the silent building, reminding me of walking over loose stones and scree on mountains. The abandoned swimming pool with its broken high windows and its high deep end and high diving board being perhaps the most poignant memory for me of the silence and desolation of this town. I peer into the changing rooms and then into the offices, which still have some paperwork left behind. Though I am told that the swimming pool was still used by workers on the site until 1996.
Finally, it is now time to return to our coaches and being our journey homeward. We make a call at the actual village of Chornobyl and pose for photographs at the sign in Russian saying ‘Welcome to Chornobyl’. Opposite is ‘The Monument to Those Who Saved the World’, a well-sculptured monument to the firefighters that died putting out the fire at the plant after the nuclear accident. The Monument is also dedicated to the Chernobyl liquidators that cleaned up the surrounding area in the exclusion zone after the accident occurred. Workers risked their lives for more than a week after the disaster to eventually contain the fire, bury the mountains of radioactive debris, and enclose the reactor inside a concrete and steel sarcophagus. Twenty-nine people died from acute radiation sickness in the days after the disaster, with hundreds more falling ill in the weeks to come. It is worth mentioning the work done by 400 soviet miners, brought in to prevent the molten core burning into the ground and thus threaten to pollute the waterways that would feed Kiev. They had to dig underneath the plant’s core to install a liquid nitrogen refrigerator to cool the molten core. The work took 6 weeks to complete.
We finally call at the border control and disembark from the coaches to have our passports checked, and also for the guides to check whether any of us had been exposed to excessive radiation. They said they would email us if they thought there was a problem. As yet, I haven’t received my email.
To sum up, for me Chernobyl was about the end of a utopian dream. The deception and the cover-up surrounding the disaster I think sowed the seeds for events that would eventually bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union. Throughout the day trip you are reminded of the power and might of the former Soviet Union (remember this country was once a superpower, being the first country to launch a satellite into space and putting the first man into space, as well as competing with the USA in the race to get to the moon in the 1960’s). But you are also reminded in the desolate landscape of the horror of the explosion, brought about by human error and design flaws in the technology, when this utopian dream was brought to an end.