Tourist in Pripyat – Visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Part 2)

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.

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…

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5 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Chernobyl

There are lots of homeless dogs living around the check points in Chernobyl and the general vicinity. These dogs are no more radioactive than the ones you’ll see around Kyiv.

This past December I did something I have wanted to do for years! I got to visit Chernobyl. I considered it to be just another exciting day trip, but then my family membered began crossing themselves and praying under their breath whenever I mentioned it.

This made me a little nervous, so I started doing some research. The information I read on English-speaking tourist websites varied greatly from what local Ukrainian websites said. I ended up sitting in the van confused and slightly worried about my safety… I wish somehow had told me the following:

1. It is 100% safe to visit Chernobyl on a tour

Although thousands if not tens of thousands suffered from the negative side effects of radiation and even died, visiting Chernobyl today is completely safe. There are people living within the “danger” zone year round. Even in the frosty December temperatures, we saw a lady going about her day from a store in Chernobyl.

The city that no one lives in is Pripyat, where certain areas do have radiation hot spots. Although no one lives there, our tour guide told us that many people break in illegally and spend the night or several nights in the long-abandoned buildings telling ghost stories and sometimes creating beautifully haunting graffiti.

2. The dogs are not radioactive

There are lots of homeless dogs living around the check points in Chernobyl and the general vicinity. These dogs are no more radioactive than the ones you’ll see around Kyiv. These dogs are all spayed, vaccinated, and they are taken care of by the local residents and employees. These dogs are also super sweet and love a good scratch. Our guide was petting them and reassuring us that it was safe!

3. Tour prices vary greatly, shop around

When Isaac and I were searching for tickets, we found tours for as much as $300 per person. Keep in mind that there are different tours, including overnight that let you sleep in a hotel in Chernobyl! But even the same day trip can vary in price, which is why I let my mom search Ukrainian websites for the best one.

The tour she chose had tickets for about $150 for foreigners and only $100 for Ukrainian-passport holders. Apparently it was the European Union, who have sponsored the protection of Chernobyl, who made the law that locals should be able to visit and learn about their history at a discount.

4. There are lots of rules on the tour

According to my mom, all these rules are just for show as part of the thrilling experience. I can see why she would think that, but I didn’t mess with any of them. One guy on our tour, however, broke every single one without consequence. He walked inside of buildings that he was told to stay out of and he took photos of things he was told not to.  Finally, I would bet anything that he snuck out souvenir that he collected along the way.

5. It is a unique and exciting experience

Even if it’s no longer unsafe and if all the precautions are overdone, what happened in Chernobyl is an important part of history. I hope that all tours play the Chernobyl documentary on the way there. You should watch it even if you never go on the tour.

The facts are that even today, there is no safe way to completely secure the reactor. Every few years, new precautions need to be made. While all of this is happening, there are still nuclear generators around the world and their dangers are 100% real. The accident at Chernobyl was unexpected and it was a miracle that it didn’t wipe out all of Europe. If it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of a handful of brave heroes, most of Europe would be unlivable today.

If you get the chance to visit Chernobyl, don’t forget where you are and what happened there. So many people suffered painfully and died in the most horrible way due to the accident. It was a terrible accident that could have been worse, but was absolutely devastating to so many already. Think about that when you walk through the abandoned kindergarten and past the homes of what was once the most prosperous city in the Soviet Union.

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