How to Visit Chernobyl

At the time of writing this blog post, Chernobyl has been off-limits to visitors for a number of years. It closed originally as part of the travel restrictions during the Covid-19 Pandemic. However before the restriction could be lifted, it was the scene of a Russian invasion,

I visited Chernobyl in May 2014, so quite a while ago. My understanding though is that the regulations, the processes, and the trip styles, haven’t and won’t change a great deal if and when access is permitted again, It is a very regulated place to visit, and with good reason.

How did you visit Chernobyl?

I went with an organisation then known as Chernobyl Welcome (branded as ChernobylWel dot com), who have since rebranded as ChernobylX. There were a group of 16 of us in total, mostly, if I recall, people around my age, who’d been alive at the time even if they didn’t necessarily remember it. I do recall one chap from Czechia who had a 1960s camera, a bulky thing with film that took only 10 pictures. He’d take a pic with a digital camera, make sure it was right, then take a shot with the film camera. Yes he agreed it was awkward to carry and expensive to use, but he assured us the quality of the final picture was excellent. We never saw if he was right or not, obviously.

One of the buildings in Pripyat. It's long, fronted with columns, made of concrete, and hidden by trees growing through the cement that used to be a plaza.
One of the buildings in Pripyat.
They offered a few different tours of varying lengths, from a day trip to a specific trip for photographers; I think that was just under a week. I chose one that was two days, pick-up and drop-off at the main railway station in Kyiv, with one night spent in a hotel in Chernobyl City. I don’t now recall much about that hotel, save that we were in twin-bedded rooms (sharing a room! How uncouth!), and it had the vibe of a glorified youth hostel. Beige/brown wall colours and décor, two storeys, a rectangular box. Forgettable, but we weren’t there for a hotel exploration. Additionally the road there is quite long and straight, and mostly there’s nothing to see but trees, so this is one place where the excursions are definitely the most exciting bits.

The hotel in Chernobyl City. It's two stories, bright yellow, fronted with what appears to be something with a corrugated look and feel, and set behind a small garden area with trees.
The hotel we stayed in at Chernobyl City.
There were a number of rules and regulations around the trip, the one that most affected me was that you had to wear closed shoes, long sleeves, and long pants – sandals were banned, never mind bare feet. I’d thought this was down to preventing as much chance of radioactive particles getting onto the skin, and while this might have been true, not long after arriving I realised another reason too – debris and broken glass everywhere.

Picture taken from inside one of the apartments in Pripyat, looking out through a window. Outside are trees. In front of the window is one bare foot.
On the whole year-long adventure this was a part of, I was taking one barefoot-selfie a day; this was all I could do in Pripyat and I probably shouldn’t even have done that!
While we were able to visit many places in and around the power plant and the nearby town of Pripyat, we weren’t allowed to venture off on our own. The only places we could explore without being in the tour group were inside a couple of the buildings where we were given free rein to poke around in the rooms. Apart from that we were always together, even going around Pripyat town centre. In addition, access to even the wider exclusion zone 30km around the power plant is strictly controlled; it’s not a place easily visited independently.

Why did you visit Chernobyl?

I was 10 and three quarter years old at the time of the explosion, and my memories of it happening are limited to sheltering under an awning during a PE lesson in the large playground at primary school, wondering if this was the ‘acid rain’ people talked about. Though I watched the news and knew ‘what’ had happened, everything else was ‘Adult Stuff’ to me, and I was more concerned with my Panini football sticker album. But while it itself didn’t seem to register itself much, it did lodge itself in there as an indexable event. That is, I don’t remember much about what happened, but I absolutely recall that it *did* happen and it was an important event. What helped this may have been the many charity events and collections that took place both in the immediate aftermath and in the years beyond – when I moved to Ashfield in 2005, I saw a charity shop called ‘Chernobyl Children’, raising money for people who, by then, would have been having their own children.

One of the ruined buildings in Chernobyl City; it's a brick rectangle with possibly no roof and some broken bricks at the eaves. There are trees growing through the walls. It lies some distance away on a lawn.
One of the ruined buildings in Chernobyl City
I’ve always had an interest in Dark History, and around the time I visited Chernobyl, I also went to Timor-Leste and the Aral Sea. But I never thought about Chernobyl, mainly as I assumed it was a place I’d never be able to go. When I realised not only *could* you, and there were affordable tours there, it jumped up my ‘I need to go here’ list. My trip from Bucharest to Vilnius in May 2014 was plotted specifically with Chernobyl in mind.

What happened at Chernobyl?

The explosion at Chernobyl is one of those places and events that’s become significant in culture as well as history, like Pearl Harbor. Even if you don’t know the precise details you know the basics and the significance, regardless of how old you are or where you live. But just in case you need a refresher, here’s a very brief overview:

Chernobyl’s name comes from Slavic language ‘chorny’ (black) and ‘byl’ (grass), referring to wormwood, the plant that’s used in making absinthe. It’s in a mostly forested region near the Dnieper River, slightly ‘out of the way’ (90km north of Kyiv in a straight line, a signpost at the 10km exclusion zone says by road it’s 131km), and bordering Belarus, The area has been definitively populated since the end of the 12th Century, but its location was seen as ideal for construction of a nuclear power station in 1972; near a river, easy to get to by land, yet far enough away from major population centres like Kyiv to be secure. The main purpose though seems to have been to provide power to the nearby Duga Radar Array.

Taken from our minibus through the windscreen, this is an image of a cement road, straight as a ruler, with dense trees on either side. There's nothing else in shot and it's clear the road is going through somewhere very not populated.
The road to the Duga Array, just outside Chernobyl City
In the years before the notable explosion, there had been at least two incidents at the facility, unreported at the time and largely ignored by those few who knew about them. Both are reported to have resulted in the release of a noteworthy amount of radioactive material, but no lessons seem to have been learned.

On 26 April 1986, at 01:23, reactor #4 at the plant blew up. It was as a result of a series of small failures in procedure following a safety test; a combination of user error and bureaucratic regulation, easily preventable with hindsight. The fire brigade were brought in to dampen the initial fires, but the other reactors kept running throughout. Reactor #3 was only shut off at 05:00 because its roof was on fire. Additionally, in the following days, a series of helicopter flights over the reactor took place. These tried to dump as much sand and other radioactivity-absorbing material onto the reactor to, if not quench the fire, at least prevent as much radioactivity leaking out as they possibly could. It worked, but at a relatively huge loss of life.

Fairly close-up view of the Chernobyl reactor taken from the service road. The new shield, a concrete armadillo-like structure, is being readied. There are cranes and metal frameworks in place to the right of it.
The replacement (2014) shielding being readied to cover the reactor
Apart from those on-site, no-one noticed for a few hours. Even when people in the nearby towns started feeling ill, nothing was actually done for over a day. This was mainly a combination of disbelief and denial amongst local and national leaders. 36 hours later, the immediate vicinity was evacuated, including the town of Pripyat – population around 50,000; everyone was bussed out with a couple of hours notice, to stay in villages around 30km away for maybe three days.

They never returned.

A yellow bus, like an American school bus, is lying at an angle on some bushes, windows smashed, stuck in the shrubland and trees.
A broken and abandoned bus – a school-type bus, but probably similar to what evacuated the populace
Note the only reason we know any of this happened at all is because of the wind direction. A couple of days after the explosion, the Swedish government noticed one of their nuclear power plants reporting higher-than-expected levels of radiation. After a quick check, they realised it was coming from the East. It was only when they threatened to speak to the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Soviets admitted there was a problem.

Where did the Pripyat evacuees go?

In late 1988, Pripyat’s citizens were relocated permanently to the newly-built town of Slavutych, some 40km to the north-east. Two exclusion zones were set up around the power plant, one at 10km and the other at 30km. Over the years the latter has expanded to now cover an area of just over 2,500 km², or slightly larger than Dorset. No-one’s allowed to live in these areas. Officially. You can read more about the exclusion zones here.

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