The most fascinating thing for me about visiting Chernobyl was the 90 minute documentary we watched in the van on the way to what is known as the 30 kilometer exclusion zone.
It isn’t that the rest of the day-long visit wasn’t interesting – it certainly was.
But it didn’t feel as eerie or moving or emotional as I expected it would.
I was only nine years old when reactor number four at the Chernobyl power plant not far from Kiev exploded around 1:30 a.m. on April 26, 1986. I probably heard about it on the news when the United States government finally learned about it a couple days later. Perhaps it was mentioned in school, perhaps it wasn’t – I don’t remember.
I honestly don’t recall ever really learning much about the accident or the controversy that followed. And I don’t think I would have even thought of visiting there during my trip to Ukraine if I hadn’t read in one of my guidebooks that tours were available. While a judge temporarily suspended tours last summer due to concerns over where profits were going, they were reinstated shortly before I arrived in Ukraine.
I jumped at the opportunity to learn about it for myself.
The documentary about the accident was surprisingly candid, walking us through the disaster minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour. It fully admitted the efforts made by Soviet officials to cover up the immediate and long-term effects of the blast on the surrounding population. At the same time, it shed light on the issues that faced officials in the days after the explosion – issues that, to this non-scientific ear, sounded eerily similar to those facing Japan in the days after last year’s earthquake and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima power plant.
Our visit began in the 30 kilometer exclusion zone, which includes the actual town of Chernobyl. People still live there, including our tour guide, Vita. However, due to lingering radiation levels, strict controls exist. No children may live in the zone and those who work in the zone follow “half-on, half-off” schedules. For example, Vita works for fifteen days, during which time she lives in the zone, and then has fifteen days off, during which time she lives in Kiev.
There, we stopped at Chernobyl’s only hotel, where Vita showed us maps of the area and explained where we were going and what we would see throughout the day.
In the center of Chernobyl town stands a memorial in the form of an angel blowing a horn. It refers to the following passage of the Bible which describes the end of days, signaled by seven angels blowing seven horns:
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. (Revelation 8:10-11)
Chernobyl is the Ukrainian word for “wormwood” and thus some believe that the Bible actually predicted the disaster at the power plant and subsequent contamination (including the nearby rivers).
On our way out of town, we stopped to see some of the military vehicles used in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Although they were thoroughly cleaned multiple times and although nearly twenty-six years have passed, when Vita held a Geiger counter up to the wheel, it still registered higher than normal levels of radiation.
Our next stop was a kindergarten in a village on the way to Pripyat, the town closest to the power plant. I was surprised at the state of the small school, expecting it to look like it did when it was abandoned, like a place frozen in time. Much to the contrary, it looked like a bomb had exploded in the building, with cracked windows, papers strewn across the floors, and broken chairs and beds scattered throughout (note that the date on the newspaper below is five years after the accident).
The same was true when we visited the “ghost town” of Pripyat itself – the first town to evacuate after the accident. Sure, there were reminders that no one had occupied the town since 1986, like a record sitting in a classroom, a child’s report card dated for the 1985-1986 school year and piles of gas masks on the floor of a school cafeteria – those were commonplace precautions in case a nuclear war with the United States began. But I felt more like I was walking through the aftermath of a tornado rather than an abandoned building frozen in time.
Perhaps the biggest reminder that Pripyat is nothing but a ghost town today was the fact that several feet of snow from the previous weeks remained almost completed untouched. Trudging through drifts several feet high, our footprints were often the first anywhere in sight. As we tried to reach the abandoned school, Vita and our driver had to clear snow of the tree branches in front of us (side note: I got slightly distracted by the fact that Vita and the driver were flirting with each other throughout the day; it was really cute).
Seeing reactor number four was a bit of a letdown. Perhaps naively, I was unaware that the actual reactor isn’t visible – it is covered in a massive steel and cement structure called the “sarcophagus.” This was built to contain the radiation escaping from the reactor in the months after the accident. So from the outside, the site of this massive disaster looks like much like any other power plant.
In the end, the things I took with me from the visit had little to do with what I saw and everything to do with what I heard.
I sympathized with the government officials who struggled with how to handle the accident. There was no “how-to” guide in place telling them how to contain the massive fire in reactor number four or how to prevent further explosions from taking place. It also took time for people on the ground to convey information to those making the decisions. This was 1986. There were no mobile phones or wireless internet. Technology in general was not as advanced as it is now. Things took time.
Many may say that Soviet officials were too slow to react, but consider this:
As soon as they realized the high radiation levels in Pripyat, they made the decision to evacuate – less than 24 hours after the accident. The following day, they brought in buses and emptied the entire town of 50,000 people in a matter of three hours.
Can you imagine that happening in the United States today? I can’t.
Say what you want about the communist system, but the fact that people were immediately inclined to follow government orders likely saved lives.
My heart broke for the immediate responders – the plant workers who lost their lives within days after exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation as they stayed at the plant trying to contain the situation. They did their jobs in nearly impossible circumstances, working around the clock and without protective gear.
And I ached for the workers summoned from throughout the Soviet Union in the days and weeks after the accident to aid in the clean-up at Chernobyl.
The firefighters who responded within hours to extinguish the blaze.
The military personnel who cleared away radioactive debris in forty-second shifts to minimize exposure to radiation.
The 250,000 construction workers who built the massive coffin of steel and cement to seal off the reactor, all of whom reached their lifetime limits of radiation exposure in the process.
But more than anything, the thing that chilled me the most and brought a tear to my eye was listening to the narrator of the documentary describe the efforts of hundreds of mine workers to dig a tunnel to install a cooling system underneath the reactor to prevent a further explosion – an explosion that could have been even larger than the first and that could have effectively wiped out part of Europe.
It could have been so much worse.
32 thoughts on “A Trip to Chernobyl”
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I am back from the trip to Chernobyl two weeks ago. It’s pretty much what you described but we were lucky to stay overnight, so we could see more.
Do you still have your guide contacts? Willing to go this next august…
You’re so brave to venture out to Chernobyl! I enjoyed reading your post, see it through your eyes.
I was 7 when the explosion happened and i lived 40 km away. We didn’t know for over a week that it happened. The government kept it very quiet. The worst part was that they encouraged everyone to go to the May 1 parades (it was more of an obligation actually) and thousands of us ended up walking under the “Yellow Rain” and later ended up with major health problems.
Another worthwhile fact to mention is there were many people who worked in the “Zone” for years to come. People who serviced the power stations, conducted tests, etc. They were the invisible heroes that had no equipment or protective gear, and went to the Zone on regular bases to do their job and paid for it dearly in the end.
Thousands of locals and people in the surrounding areas ended up getting cancer and dying. In my city they built a huge regional oncology hospital shortly after the disaster.
This was a very tragic event that have hugely impacted my life and the life of people around me.
Thanks for sharing.
What a powerful post. I so wish that we made time to go when we were in Ukraine. We were in too much of a hurry on the Mongol Rally. I wonder why the newspaper was dated 5 years later? did someone bring it in and leave it? You raised some great issues and I agree, I dont’ think that we in Canada or the US could handle a disaster that quickly in today’s world. They did do a good job considering the circumstances. Great photos to help tell the story. The really gave the visuals needed to picture what it was like to visit.
Thanks Deb! You actually wouldn’t have been able to go last summer – they had suspended tours sometime in June. The newspaper is a mystery to me. The kindergarten where it was is not in Pripyat (the town that was evacuated first) and if I recall correctly is in the 30 mile exclusion zone, but not the 10 mile, so it may be that it wasn’t evacuated or that people returned. Or yeah, that someone brought it and left it.
I really sympathized with the Soviet officials trying to handle it, with MUCH less technology and communications than we have today. As I pointed out in the post, they definitely didn’t handle certain things the right way (like not notifying the international community immediately and covering up the health effects later), but I really feel like they did the best they could under the circumstances.
Wow…not sure how I missed this one. Awesome post Katie. I too have a curiosity to visit Chernobyl…Something about seeing a place frozen in time intrigues me and is heartbreaking at the same time..
Visiting Chernobyl must be such an evocative experience. I was in Kiev a few years ago, but sadly for too short a time to do this tour. Reason enough to return, probably. I remember reading a reportage just a few years ago, where a journalist had spotted a radio-active wolf near Pripyat.
How absolutely terrifying. The Bible passage gave me a bit of the spooks. People who died to protect others in that way are more than heroes. Thanks for this take on the incident.
Sounds like an amazing experience. I was almost 6 when this happened, so I certainly don’t remember anything about it. I only learned bits and pieces when I was older. It’s so sad to know how many people died because of this, and even just the clean up process. Awful.
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Amazing. A story from my childhood I remember well. Endlessly Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.
You’re welcome Erik – glad you enjoyed.
Seems like an incredibly emotional place to visit. It’s hard to think about those who stayed behind and the sacrifices they made to protect the rest. Thanks for sharing.
I just gotta say, I’m a big fan of your posts/adventure. I’ve been reading along silently, but i figured I’d make an appearance on here, I’m Ukrainian myself, and on my list of things to do in the 5-10 years is to take a huge trip through Europe and one main component of the trip will be the Tran-Siberian Rail and many of the places you have been. Keep the posts coming, and make them as lengthy as you like, they are much appreciated to those of us who’d like to be there but aren’t.
I agree with Chris. Your posts dig deeper than the typical travel blogger’s post. More importantly, you’re visiting a region that is hidden and overlooked by many, who prefer the more popular routes. Keep up the good work!
Thanks Francis! Coming from someone who (literally) wrote the book on eastern Europe, it’s a great compliment. 🙂
I’m looking forward to reading your book – I’m hoping it will be a great supplement to a lot of what I’ve already seen!
Thanks Chris! That means a lot – thanks for finally making an appearance! 🙂
It is a goal of mine to visit here and posts like yours just strengthen that feeling! Great photos. It’s interesting to see it in snow as well.
Yeah, I think it definitely had a different feel to it all covered in snow!
Thanks for such a detailed account of your visit and sharing your emotions while there. The Ukrainian husband of one of my Estonian friends was a truck driver who helped in the cleanup, but I really had no idea how many people had died in the cleanup and containment process. Just tragic.
You’re welcome Audrey! I don’t know that we’ll ever really know how many people directly died – the Soviet government covered up so much and, interestingly, even the official numbers from the World Health Organization are surprisingly low. The sad thing is, someone had to do all the cleanup and containment to prevent the whole thing from being worse – those people pretty much sacrificed their lives for the sake of everyone else’s.
Great post! It’s really moving to think about these events again. I was only a kid in Germany when this happened, but I remember distinctly people being very afraid of “sour rain”, the cloud that was moving to Europe, and what else could happen. Even as a kid, it was immediatly clear that this was a huge and terrible accident. Thanks for sharing all the pictures and your impressions of the visit.
Thanks Sabrina! Like I said in the post, I vaguely remember hearing about it but because we were so far removed from it and it wasn’t a big threat in the US, we probably didn’t hear as much.
you were probably too cold to feel the eeriness of the place 🙂 just kidding 🙂
i have always desired to visit this place because i did a paper in my undergrad on it that was like a 50 page paper…so i know like every detail of the event and what has transpired since!
when i was in kiev my goal was to visit it, but thanks to the corrupt ukrainian government, i didnt get to (tours were shut down). they apparently reopened a day before i arrived, but i didnt know. UGH! which means i need to get back 🙂
great photos katie!
LOL, it was really cold though!! I actually think the snow kind of took away from the eeriness. It just felt kind of isolated and peaceful.
I’m impressed you know so much – I didn’t realize how little I knew until I went on the day trip and to the museum in Kiev (I hope you at least made it there!). I probably could’ve written twice as much as I did. 🙂
Hope you make it there someday!
Thanks for the honesty in this post. I’ve only heard a few recounts of visits – but this one really gives me an idea of how a visit must feel. Great pictures also.
Appreciate this post… I remember it, and the “cloud” over Europe when a child. Scared me.
Thanks for the photos too… Never knew that about the angels… So much symbolism in everything…
Thanks Craig! Yeah, I had never heard the angel thing before. I’m not super religious, but I found it fascinating.
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