Chernobyl Trip Part One - Arrival, Monuments and Nursery
Welcome to the first part of our Chernobyl and Pripyat tour! If you would like to read about the first day in Ukraine, please see here!
Starting the Tour in Kiev
Our tour started at 8am, which was quite a struggle considering the night before's hunt for currency exchanges! The sky was clear blue and the temperature a warm 18 degrees, with a light cool breeze, but we were just thankful that the thunderstorms of the night before had cleared. As we were having a 'private' tour, rather than a open public tour, Natalie; the tour manager, Dennis; the tour guide; and Yuri, our driver met us outside the Hotel. We paid the tour fee and the mandatory insurance money directly to Natalie (who in turn just handed most of it to Dennis!) and jumped in Yuri's car (it was a Skoda Fabia if you were wondering - No Ladas here!).
Natalie stayed behind and Soph, Dennis, Yuri and I made our way north to the Exclusion Zone. Handing us a Dosimeter to record the radiation levels, he showed us that the background radiation in Kiev was around 0.12 microsieverts per hour, well below the limit of 0.25 microsieverts per hour. For reference, radiation from flying is about 2.7 microsieverts per hour.
The journey took around one and a half hours, in which time the temperature was up to around 23 degrees - still with a cloudless sky. Eventually, the traffic was noticeably sparse. Miles went by and we saw no one, the forest was also getting more dense. Slowing down, Dennis turned to us in the back and said we were coming up to the first check point and that we had to wait for someone to bring us our Exclusion Zone Visa papers. We got out the car and had a little wonder around. We were told not to take photos of the checkpoint, so instead we took a photo of the Dosimeter, which read 0.10. Apart from that, the area was quite unspectacular - just normal green countryside.
Into the Zone
After about fifteen minutes, everything was ready. The only question I had to answer from the guards was "Which football team do you support?". Satisfied by my "Liverpool" answer, they let us through.
Straight away if felt eerie. Just the knowledge you have entered the restricted zone of the worst nuclear disasters ever was enough to plunge the car into silence. Eventually, Dennis broke the silence with some quite ominous forms, basically with the does and don't of the zone, along with a place for our autograph. A few such points were:
- You must, at all times, wear closed-type shoes, trousers and long sleve top
- No smoking or drinking in the open air
- No drinking or eating anything 'from the land'
All seemed pretty obvious, so a signature later and we were officially in the Exclusion Zone!
The Town of Chernobyl
The actual town of Chernobyl isn't very close to the reactors - It's on the edge of the 30km Exclusion Zone, and was where all the workers and tourists live as there are about 4000 people in the Zone at any one time, working in shifts of 14 days in the zone, 14 days out the zone. The Zones are spilt into 3 levels: Level 3 is the least contaminated and contains the town of Chernobyl, many of the surrounding abandoned villages and much of the south and south east. Level 2 is the medium contaminated areas, which include the town of Pripyat, the areas surrounding the power plant and some of the closer villages. Level 1 is the Highly contaminated areas. These are no-go areas. Obviously they include the power plant itself. It also includes the Red Forest - possibly THE most contaminated place on earth - so called after the colour the trees turned after huge amounts of the radioactive 'cloud' were deposited in the forest. We took a video of how radioactive this area is by driving on the road past it, which I will post at a later date. So, back to the town of Chernobyl. We were taken straight to the Hotel, of which, as we were pulling up to it, Dennis remarked "It's 5 star!". We both chucked as we thought we had seen pictures of it online, and it as definitely not 5 star. Thankfully - and I really do mean thankfully - there is more than one hotel in Chernobyl. 3 to be precise, and another is currently being built. We were staying in this one, which is about 2 years old.
After arriving, we had a FOUR course lunch, which contained no less than 2 forms of cabbage (salad and soup!) and set off to start the tour!
Chernobyl Fire Fighters Memorial and Vehicle Museum
Immediately after the accident, the first people on the scene were the fire fighters. Ill prepared for a nuclear disaster, officially seven - all of those who actually went in the power station - died, but what they were able to do undoubtedly saved lives. The accident happened around 1:23am and by 5:00am, all external fires were contained, preventing the posibility of damaging the other reactors.
The first place we visit is a memorial to those firemen and aptly placed outside the current Fire Station for the region. If you would like to read more about the firefighters of Chernobyl, here is a good article compiled by Tim Knifton.
Second, and next door, there was a small museum, which is nothing more than field, with some of the vehicles used to clear up the debris and radioactive waste in the aftermath of the event. Unfortunately they had been recently re-painted in awful colours which made them look like massive Tonka trucks.
Next, we drove deeper into the Zone, passing checkpoint 2, and into Level 2. Soon we were able to see the outline of the reactor over the tree line and we drove directly for it. We must have been only 5 Km away when we stopped at the closest village to the power plant. In the immediate aftermath, the authorities tried to bulldoze and bury the tiny village with the hope of containing the radiation. Unfortunately it didn't work, and was way too expensive and risky to try again. The only surviving building was the nursery.
As we got out the car, Dennis called us over. Taking the dosimeter, he crouched down and put it at the base of a tree. It took less than a second of it to start screaming out warning sirens. The reading was a stark reminder that, although we can travel relatively safely in the right areas, the Zone is still highly radioactive and is still capable of killing. 13.11 microsieverts/hour is about an eighth of the radiation needed to require medical attention, but wander further in, and you will soon be in trouble.
Holding onto the Dosimeter, we progressed down the path and into the nursery. It was a very eerie place, with the floor littered with debris and old toys. The building was very wet, with drips of water falling from the ceiling in many places. In one room, something had fallen straight through the upper floor and the ground floor. Most of the floor boards were very decayed and spongy. We didn't stay here long - most of the rooms were too unsafe to go into.
After the nursery we got back in the car and started to drive to the power plant...