It’s become increasingly popular to visit Chernobyl while in Ukraine. A Chernobyl tour is unlike anything you’ve probably ever experienced, because it’s the closest you can come to seeing what the world would look like if humanity went extinct. The exclusion zone around the Chernobyl Power Plant remains to this day the way it was in 1986 when the nuclear accident forced all its residents to evacuate. The entire area serves as a memorial to the people who sacrificed their lives to prevent an even bigger nuclear disaster and an indictment of Soviet rule and incompetence.
The Chernobyl Tour
There are many tour companies that offer the tour from Kyiv, we went with what is seemingly the main company, Chernobyl Tour, which has the best reviews and branded gift shops in some parts of the Exclusion Zone. The tour departs from outside the main Kyiv train station in a one of several small group buses with guides that speak different languages.
From there, you drive nearly two hours to the Dytiatky Checkpoint where a military police officer checks your passport before allowing you into the zone. For more information about why this is, check out everything you need to know about visiting Chernobyl. We came in February, so there weren’t so many groups. During busier tourist season in the summer, thousands of tourists arrive around the same time, causing a wait up to 30-40 minutes at times. While all the paperwork is taken care of, you can buy souvenirs at the gift shop.
Though the Chernobyl disaster is known for having left the city of Pripyat abandoned, there were actually almost 100 abandoned settlements in Ukraine. On the way to Prypiat, you’ll pass by and stop at a couple of them. The first is Zalissya where you can see some of the traditional shops, a theater inside the city’s palace of culture, and abandoned cars and small schools. It’s a taste of what you’ll see in Prypiat.
You’ll also stop at a kindergarten in Kopachi where you’ll find abandoned classrooms, dorms and other facilities. Though you can enter the inside of the school, the yard is the first time you’ll hear your geiger counter beeping like crazy. That’s because this is the area where trucks coming in and out of the power plant after the disaster would have their wheels washed when they were transporting supplies in.
Pripyat walking tour
Before entertaining Pripyat, you’ll go through another check point. After you cross the border, you’ll start to see the outskirts of the city, dozens of apartment buildings with broken windows, run down signs and overgrown trees encroaching on the structures. At that point, you get dropped off and walk the rest of the way. The tour of Pripyat is like an average city walking tour except that everything you visit is completely abandoned. The guides are knowledgeable and know which buildings are safe to enter. In fact, our guide, Irina, worked in the Exclusion Zone for 20 years during the decommissioning of the Chernobyl Power Plant.
We started our walking tour in a massive sport complex, where you can see the remains of a basketball court and an Olympic sized swimming pool, now empty and covered in debris. The windows of the building are blown out so you can see the surrounding area from inside. After the sport complex, we made our way next door to a school, where there are a lot of artifacts left over from 1986. You‘ll see science models, bookshelves, chalkboards, and hundreds of child size gas masks which were actually there in the event the Cold War heated up, but which weren’t used during the Chernobyl disaster because authorities didn’t want to cause panic (they caused cancer instead. Soviet efficiency at work.)
As an up-and-coming city, Pripyat had just built a stadium, which was never used because the disaster happened before it could open. During our tour, we saw the bleachers and the main entrance of the stadium, even though the field is now a forest.
We also toured Pripyat’s amusement park, which is where some of the most haunting and iconic photos of the Exclusion Zone come from. The amusement park was also scheduled to open for the first time a few days after the accident forced all the city’s residents to evacuate. You can’t get inside any of the bumper cars or the Ferris wheel because those aren’t decontaminated. But as long as you don’t touch anything, you can see it from afar.
After this jaunt through the parks, you’ll go into the city’s financial district. This part is striking for the sheer size of the buildings. You can see that this was once a bustling downtown with a movie theatre, clubs, restaurants and a mall. We got the chance to go into a massive supermarket where you can still see the aisles labeled and shopping carts stranded.
This is the area where some of the most important workers of the Chernobyl Power Plant lived. We also saw the hotel where many of the experts stayed when they came to try to minimize the damage of the accident, including chemist, Valery Legasov. Before heading back to the bus, we got to see an apartment building where power plant workers traditionally lived.
The Chernobyl canteen
Lunch is held at the canteen at the Chernobyl power plant. Before entering, you have to be checked for radiation. After a thorough washing of the hands, you’re served the kinds of foods that plant workers used to get. The hearty meal includes soup, bread, salad, meat, pasta and some fruit drink, though the menu varies always according to recipes that were used back in 1986. We paid extra for the meal and had to book it in advance but it was worth it. Even though we brought snacks along, we were starving by the time we had lunch at 2:30 pm after all that walking.
Chernobyl Power Plant
After lunch, you drive around to the outside of the Chernobyl plant where you can see the containment tank that now covers reactor 4. Although it is possible to enter the control room of the reactors, it’s not part of a day trip to the Exclusion Zone and it requires special permits. At this point in the tour, you’ll learn some about the efforts to prevent a far more catastrophic incident that could have had far-reaching consequences all over Europe.
On the way out of the Exclusion Zone, we made one more stop at the Duga-1 Radar, an even bigger Soviet waste of money than the Chernobyl power plant. During Soviet control of Ukraine, the existence of the radar wasn’t known to anyone. The radar was designed to detect intercontinental missiles coming from the US. The massive undertaking cost 7 billion Soviet rubles to complete, more than twice what it cost to contain the Chernobyl disaster, and it was basically useless because the aurora borealis, among other things, caused interference.
All the expensive equipment at the radar later burned up during the Chernobyl accident. This is why tourists on a Chernobyl tour are able to visit this site that was once highly classified. This stop on the tour gives you a little bit of background on the technology behind the radar. We even got to enter a military classroom where soldiers studied nuclear weapons and how to track them.
Leaving the Exclusion Zone
On the way out, we passed by the city of Chernobyl which is currently inhabited part-time by researchers and officials who control the area and make sure it’s safe. Before leaving, there are two checkpoints where you’re checked for radiation and the car is checked as well. No one in our group had any issues but in the event that you stepped in the wrong puddle, there is a special cleaning method to decontaminate your clothes before leaving.
The day was exhausting with a lot of walking, but the experience was one-of-a-kind. It’s not every day you get to see a preserved time capsule that’s three decades old. You’ll take home with you a new perspective, but hopefully no radiation.