Hopping on a bus in Kiev, Ukraine at 7 AM, I could hardly believe where we were headed. Would the bus have a bright, blaring marquee declaring “Chernobyl” on it? We really didn’t know what to expect.
After some trial and error, we finally located the little van that would take my wife, her mother, a dozen other tourists and me north about 100 km to the abandoned town of Pripyat. It was the heart of winter and the temperature wouldn’t get much above freezing that whole day.
Along the way, we were handed out little devices that would measure the radiation in the air around us. These were basically just a novelty to let us know that we were safe, and were a bit of fun when we saw the numbers start to rise. The levels never got high enough to do any harm, and in fact we were told the snow was an additional insulator against any radioactive particles.
Along the way, as the 2006 documentary “The Battle of Chernobyl” played on a small screen, I started googling statistics. Apparently, we were among 60,000 people to visit Chernobyl that year. I knew it was safe and that, of course, they wouldn’t let people come if it wasn’t, but I couldn’t help searching things like “Effects of visiting Chernobyl” and “Signs of radiation poisoning.”
Google Maps told me that we were getting close, and sure enough the van stopped and we entered what’s known as the “Exclusion Zone” or “Alienation Zone.” This is an area of 30km in radius from the reactor itself, and is to this day uninhabited, except for some stubborn villagers who refused to leave. We hopped off the bus, had our passports and special passes checked, and got back on.
The drive inside was fairly uneventful, mostly through forests that have had the chance to thrive in the absence of human intervention. I anxiously kept my eyes glued to Google Maps as the little blue dot got closer and closer to the town of Pripyat, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant just a few kilometers away. What would it be like? Would we need special suits to get close to the reactor? What would the city be like, once a bustling Soviet metropolis of 50,000 people, now a wasteland – abandoned in a moment during the disaster in 1986?