Journey to a place where time stood still

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The journey to the abandoned town of Pripyat in Ukraine’s central north is one of the most interesting tours I’ve ever been on.

While the subject matter is dark and very sad, the content of the tour is fascinating. You don’t just journey to an abandoned town shattered by a disaster, but you learn about the events leading up to it and the response. You are immersed in the history and then you stand where it took place and it feels like time has stood still for 30 years.

You may not have heard of Pripyat but I’m sure you’ve heard of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster – even if you weren’t born when it happened (I was only two years old at the time). In the early hours of 26 April 1986, the plant’s Reactor 4 exploded sending a radiation cloud over Pripyat and north across what was then the USSR, and up to Scandinavia.

For Pripyat, it was devastating. Pripyat was home to many plant workers and their families. It was a bustling town that was established in 1970 at the same time as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

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In the days after the explosion, the town was evacuated due to the deadly levels of radiation. People were told they were evacuating and three hours later, the town was emptied out. People were told to grab personal items for a few days, and it was expected they would return to the Pripyat in later days or weeks.

30 years on, the town remains abandoned. But Pripyat wasn’t the own town abandoned in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. In fact, 96 towns and villages were abandoned in Ukraine, while 92 towns and villages were abandoned in the adjacent country of Belarus, north of Ukraine. Pripyat is the most famous because of its size, proximity to the plant and because it was home to many of the plant workers.

Today, radiation levels are low enough that day tours are run from the Ukrainian capital Kiev to explore Pripyat, and see the sarcophagus over Reactor 4.

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Into the Exclusion Zone

Full day Chernobyl tours take you into the 30km exclusion zone around the now defunct power plant. There’s an exclusion zone as radiation is still present in the area. But first some facts about the radiation levels at Chernobyl – and in your daily life.

The fact is we are all exposed to very low levels of radiation every day, and normal activities such as flying exposes us to radiation.

Average radiation levels in Kiev is around 0.14 sieverts per hour. When my tour departed Kiev, radiation levels were measured at 0.13 sieverts per hour on the Geiger counter. In comparison, San Francisco for example, experiences an average of 0.21 sieverts per hour. During a flight, you experience up to 8.0 sieverts an hour.

A dental X-ray exposes you to 5.0 sieverts, a chest CT scan 7.

If you stand right in front of the sarcophagus over Reactor 4, the Geiger counters record an average of 3.50 sieverts per hour.

The average dose of radiation received during a day trip to Chernobyl is 2.2 sieverts. This is equal to a one hour flight.

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I did my research before I went and the information provided on the day of the tour confirmed it, that you receive a higher radiation dose with an X-Ray so I was very comfortable going to Chernobyl – and did not return radioactive!

We walk through the forest onto the cinema complex, walking up bare staircases into rooms filled with debris and shards of glass. In the aftermath of the Pripyat evacuation, the town was looted for useful items such as radiators and aluminium from window frames. The glass was smashed out from many windows and lies scattered across the ground, crunching underfoot with every step.

After the cinema, we head to the amusement park. The town’s amusement park and sports stadium were actually never used. They were due to be officially opened for the town’s planned May Day celebrations, but now the yellow ferris wheel stands rotting and the dodgem cars sit haphazard. The stadium ground has been overtaken by the forest, but you can just make out the running track.

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From there, we headed to the kindergarten, filled with discarded dolls and wooden children’s beds.

Then we climbed up 15 floors inside one of Prypiat’s tallest apartment buildings. You see the layout of the apartments, which now lay bare of any personal effects but contain items like lounge suites and cabinets. The stairs are stripped of railings.

You can see from there how the forest has overtaken the town, and not far away lies the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. You can clearly make out the sarcophagus that is currently being built over Reactor 4 to seal in the radiation replacing the previous sarcophagus put in place in the months after the explosion.

We then head to the gymnasium and swimming pool complex. The swimming pool was still used by workers at the nuclear power plant until 2001 at which time the plant was completely closed down.

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The adjacent primary school is three floors of scattered desks, propaganda posters, and rooms littered with children’s gas masks.

The hospital is one of the creepier places on the tour. It was the first hospital which received the first casualties of the disaster. The hospital is littered with medicinal containers and several items of medical equipment.

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Along the way our guide Igor provides details of the buildings we enter and what life was like in Pripyat before the disaster.

The town was mainly populated with families, with more than 1000 babies born each year and there are many schools and kindergartens throughout the town.

Also included in the Chernobyl tours is a look at a former Soviet military radar which was part of the Soviet early warning system.

Cost for the tour is $US100 if you buy at least 10 days ahead. I bought my tour via Dream House Hostel where I stayed during my time in Kiev and I paid ahead of time through their secure booking system.

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Things You Should Know:

  • There are several tour companies based in Kiev offering day trips to Chernobyl. You need to provide your passport details when booking the tour. This is provided to the checkpoints ahead of time to ensure you are granted access to the exclusion zone. You need to bring your passport with you on the tour for military personnel to crosscheck against their manifest.
  • Book the Chernobyl tour at least 10 days ahead of your desired date to ensure a place and the cheapest price.
  • Dress code for the tour is enclosed shoes, pants and long sleeved shirt. No T-shirts or shorts are allowed. Do not sit on the ground when taking photos and avoid touching any items at Pripyat such as dolls or gas masks.
  • The average dose of radiation received during a tour is 2.2 sieverts. This is less than an X-Ray.
  • You are required to pass through radiation control machines at the two checkpoints after your tour to ensure radiation levels on your clothing and shoes are within safe levels. If not, you will be required to wash or leave behind any items that don’t pass the test. It is rare for anyone to not pass this test.
  • Australians (and some other nationalities) need a visa to enter Ukraine. A tourist visa is valid for 15 days. It can be obtained ahead of time from the Ukraine Embassy in Canberra or is also possible to get a visa on arrival. A visa on arrival will only be processed at Kiev Boryspil Airport or the Odessa Sea Port. It cannot be obtained at any other airport or land border crossings so your best bet is to fly into Boryspil Airport. Check smarttraveller.gov.au for up to date information on obtaining the visa on arrival. From experience though, you should fly into Kiev within normal business hours. Once inside the airport, look for the visa on arrival desk or if no one is there ask at passport control. You’ll need to supply print outs of accommodation bookings and then fill out a form with your personal details. The fee is $A26 and can be paid with cash or credit card. It takes about 30 minutes for the visa to be processed.

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