This tour was organized by one of several companies who make trips to Chernobyl and Pripyat. Most of the them include a documentary on the bus on the way, entrance to the Exclusion Zone, and various stops at points of interest. You can also order lunch of a few bucks extra. Oh, and if you’re not Ukrainian, expect to pay nearly double the admission price – there’s a big discount for Ukrainian citizens.
The little souvenir shack right before the entrance to the Exclusion Zone was a little weird. It boasted T-Shirts declaring “I <3 Chernobyl” with a biohazard symbol instead of the heart, and postcards proudly proclaiming “I survived Chernobyl. They had everything you would expect from a Disnyeland gift shop, from Chernobyl pens to coffee mugs. I found it a bit in poor taste, but hey, whatever pays the bills.
The idea of visiting Chernobyl can be a bit scary at first. Half the population of the world or more is old enough to remember the disaster. My mother-in-law, who joined us on this journey, remembers being mocked in school as the “Radioactive girl” who lived in Kiev during the accident. It’s easy to think that it would be dangerous to visit the area.
In truth though, it’s perfectly safe. We were told that a routine X-ray exposes you to ten times more radiation than a visit to Chernobyl, and as long as you don’t take a piece of a building and literally eat it, you’re going to be fine. To be safe, the workers in the area work in short-term shifts of only a few months per year. There are apparently still residents who refused to leave the Exclusion Zone, and according to our guides hundreds of people still live in little villages throughout the 1,000 square mile zone. Since radioactivity really is an “invisible enemy,” it’s hard for many to believe that they are at risk.
The road towards Pripyat was a but monotonous – Just forest on either side. Finally, we mae a turn and headed towards the Duga Radar system – a monolith steel structure stretching 150 meters in the air and 500 meters from one side to the other. Nicknamed “The Russian Woodpecker,” this radar system was used to intercept shortwave radio signals. The nickname came from the annoying sound that it made when it disrupted signals from nearby aviation and radio broadcasting companies.
You have to see it to believe it – Almost falling backwards in an attempt to get a good photo, my jaw dropped as the guide explained that for a while, conspiracy theorists thought that these Duga radar devices were used by the USSR as a means of weather and mind control. In the shadow of this colossal testament to its time, I found myself entertaining such a notion myself…
The next stop was at the border of the city of Pripyat, where everyone got their selfie on in front of the welcome sign. After this, the blue dot on my Google Maps inched every closer to the center of the city. We were now only a few kilometers from the Block 4 Reactor, still humming with deadly radiation under its steel sarcophagus…