Chernobyl and Pripyat: Visiting Ukraine’s Exclusion Zone

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus Memorial next to the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine
The Chernobyl Sarcophagus Memorial next to the Chernobyl Power Plant.

The Chernobyl disaster has fascinated us for a long time, long before the excellent Chernobyl TV show aired in 2019.

But visiting Ukraine and the power plant was something we’d never expected to do, even though we wanted to do a pilgrimage of sorts to the Exclusion Zone.

However, an unexpected work trip arose in September 2021. And so with a day off on Sunday 12th September, we booked into a day tour and headed to the location of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

Here’s a review of our experiences with this, along with some insights on Ukraine where we spent almost two weeks.

Visiting Ukraine and Kiev

A few notes of Kiev (or Kyiv) first, if you please, as we had the chance to tour the city with colleagues on 11th September.

That’s when we got to see delights such as these truly epic buskers above, who performed for several hours in a heatwave.

Meanwhile, we got to see all sorts of interesting city centre gems and historical curiosities over the course of four hours.

Now being from Manchester, we’re quite used to a smaller scale city. The central hustle and bustle here is in the city centre and around 2 miles within it. That’s about it, there’s no further sprawl as with cities such as London, New York, Tokyo etc.

And Kiev has that super city film to it—huge and imposing, with modern architecture sitting next to Soviet era slums and more traditional and modest buildings.

Where I was working was 45 floors up in the tallest building in the city, with some epic views of the city sweeping before us.

Ukraine seems quite misunderstood as a country, with the nation hardly being at the top of many people’s travel destinations.

That’s a shame as it’s a fascinating place with lots of old and modern culture to take in, plus some brilliant restaurants and all that.

Visiting Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Right, so we booked with SoloEast Travel and met the team by the McDonald’s in central Kiev.

There was a very tall American lady there consuming McDonald’s when we arrived. Stereotypes and all that.

But yeah, we all piled into the van at 8am and set off for Chernobyl. During the two hour trip our tour guide chatted some fun stuff and we also got to watch various clips from the TV show.

Plus a documentary from 2006 that sounded the warning bells for just how horrendous the Chernobyl disaster really was, but largely went ignored into HBO’s show.

So the trip in involves multiple checkpoint areas at various areas around the Exclusion Zone, for which you need your passport and a general sober experience.

The government is very keen to point out Chernobyl isn’t an amusement park ride and no one should be drunk. Useful information, right there.

But then you get through all that and travel through the beautiful countryside, as if entirely unaffected by a nuclear disaster.

First port of call was the Duga Radar, which is a bizarre structure the Soviets built in 1970 to keep track of American missiles.

That thing is enormous and weird. That’s the best way to sum it up. And the tour gives you a walk around the back and front of the structure.

After this, we had a simple but tasty lunch at the local Chernobyl restaurant (the only one in the region). This was chicken with potatoes and some bread… and it was very nice!

But weren’t there for food. We were there for a power plant. And we rumbled on in our bus to that up the road.

Initially, the tour shows you the power plant from 1km off.

Then you get to move right next to it. These days the old sarcophagus is covered by the New Confinement Unit, which cost $2 billion to construct and is safe for the next century.

If you need a reminder of how horrendous this whole thing was, and the many heroes who contained the incident, all you need to do is watch the TV show’s ending sequence.

Vakery Legasov and hundreds of thousands of others had been so brave in their battle against this thing they suffered the inevitable consequences.

Legasov’s suicide was a result of the chronic stress caused by the disaster, but also the realisation radiation would severely limit his immediate lifespan.

All of which can only lead onto the local town of Pripyat, which was built to house local power plant workers and their families.

The mass evacuation of the city was delayed whilst authorities denied the reality of the situation, eventually evacuating the city in a matter of hours.

And arriving into the place is one of the more eerie aspects of the trip, as it’s such a beautiful area. But you can’t help but think of the mass evacuation in late April 1986 and the mass of emotions the population had to face.

Visiting Pripyat

Visiting Pripyat was certainly one of the astonishing moments of the trip, playing out in the way you’d expect.

Wandering around the abandoned city is like being in a forest.

There’s woodland everywhere, which has wildly overgrown what would have been normal human pursuits in 1986.

We took in the likes of the old amusement park with its Ferris wheel.

This park hadn’t actually opened before the disaster, so it was built and ready to open. But never officially did, so no one has ever used the dodgem cars and whatnot.

We also get to trek up into one of the abandoned apartment blocks for a look into Soviet era life back in the early ’80s.

There was so much broken glass around it was quite unreal.

Visitors can only stay in Pripyat for a short while and you’re not allowed to touch anything, otherwise you risk contaminating yourself.

In fact, there are radiation checks when you leave the Exclusion Zone to ensure you’ve not done anything stupid.

The radiation detector machines are so heavily entrenched in Soviet era ’80s simplicity that it summed up the nature of the trip for us.

Chernobyl is a region permanently stuck in the past, that also provides an important message for the future.

And this trip is well worth your time and effort should you get the opportunity to head out there.

19 comments

  1. I’m sure I will never go to the Ukraine.
    I think it’s fabulous that you got to go to Chernobyl. Thank you for sharing this.
    I trust you are doing well, and will return home in better shape that you left.
    Be well!
    I do remember the disaster.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That must have been quite an experience. I haven’t watched the show yet, but the Chernobyl is something that has also always captured my interest.

    Ukraine looks like a beautiful place, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, that sounds like quite a trip. I saw both the Chernobyl miniseries and a documentary about the incident, and it’s quite the fascinating subject – especially how the government tried to cover it up. Of course, trying to cover something like that up would be like trying to deny a volcano erupted by throwing a carpet on it. That’s probably what it comes across as – a modern-day Vesuvius event that ends up creating a 3D snapshot of that particular moment in time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It feels like a film set when you visit it, but it’s all painfully real (as lots of reminders around the place remind you).

      The cover ups continued until around 2000, when finally the full details of just how serious the disaster was came out. But by then I think a lot of people had long moved on from it. At least the TV show was a reminder for the heroism and suffering involved.

      Before you go into the Exclusion Zone, you also get a safety flier on your ticket reminding you, “Chernobyl is not an amusement park.” I found that piece of information very helpful, as prior to that I believed it’d be like Disneyland.

      Liked by 1 person

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