Did you know that Chernobyl has opened up for tourism since 2002, only 16 years after the biggest nuclear accident ever recorded in human history that took place here?
Of course, back then it was not as popular as it is today, with only a few hundred tourists daring to enter the highly radioactive Exclusion Zone. The popularity of the site, however, has progressively grown bigger thanks to the so-called dark tourism lovers. What comes as a big surprise is that nowadays both touring around Chernobyl and sleeping inside the Exclusion Zone is absolutely possible!
I first visited Chernobyl in March 2016. At that time the New Safe Confinement (the massive structure that would cover the old sarcophagus housing the destroyed Reactor 4) was still a work in progress. Leaving us, visitors of the site, in absolute shock while standing in front of a sarcophagus cracked, rusted, and leaking radiation. The officials of Chernobyl openly told us that the work on the New Safe Confinement was delayed, something that could pose a huge risk for humanity if the old sarcophagus would just collapse…
Luckily this did not happen, and in late November 2016, the New Safe Confinement was slid over Reactor 4. Its lifetime is estimated at 100 years. Thanks to this new “shelter”, the radiation levels outside the structure have now decreased by almost 10 times. Making a visit in Chernobyl safer than ever!
First Things First - A Short Travel Back In Time
On the fatal night of April 26th, 1986, at 1.23 a.m. and while performing a safety test in the Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the biggest nuclear accident ever recorded in history took place. The government of the Soviet Union tried to cover up the whole incident, but the radioactive cloud that was released out in the air flew over Scandinavia, where it was quickly detected by Swedish scientists. The Soviet Union initially denied that an accident had occurred on its grounds, but was forced to admit it several days later.
In the meantime, and despite the fact that the broader Chernobyl zone got highly contaminated, it took almost 2 full days until the evacuation of the towns and villages was ordered. Even at that very time of the evacuation, the Soviet authorities kept quiet on the severity of the accident, as well as its harmful consequences, reassuring the inhabitants that they would return to their homes in just a few days. Something that, of course, never happened…
Pripyat Then And Now
Back then, Pripyat was the largest town within the Chernobyl zone with almost 50,000 inhabitants. It was built as a model city of the Soviet Union in order to accommodate the nuclear power plant’s workers and families. Counting only 16 years of operation at the time of the accident, it is sad to see that such a thriving young city has now turned into a ghost town.
Visiting Pripyat is just like being transported into a post-apocalyptic world. The most iconic symbol of the town is the Ferris wheel in the amusement park that was due to open on May 1, 1986, for the May Day celebration. For the record, in an effort to keep the inhabitants distracted from the accident, Soviet officials ordered for the Ferris wheel to get into operation one day after the explosion.
Pripyat nowadays looks like a modern necropolis, taken over by nature. Trees have grown even on the asphalt, apartment buildings are covered in plants, while the dense vegetation makes you feel as if you are walking into a jungle. The panoramic view from the rooftop of an apartment building over the town is simply breathtaking and confirms that, indeed, nature is in command here.
Life In Chernobyl
You might think that Chernobyl is completely uninhabited by now, but this is not entirely true. About 100 people still live in scattered ghost villages within the 30 km Exclusion Zone (but beyond the most contaminated 10 km zone around the nuclear power plant). They are called “self-settlers”, “re-settlers” or “samosely” in Ukrainian.
These people were evacuated from Chernobyl right after the accident and were offered a new safe home in the city. But they simply could not accept that fate. Acknowledging the fact that they would most probably die in a few years, they still fought for their right to return back to their ancestor villages. The majority of them were back then over the age of 50 with no children.
The government granted a couple of hundred permissions, as a once-off process, but made it clear that no additional requests would be accepted ever after. The villages that would welcome back re-settlers were thoroughly cleaned, while constant contamination monitoring was established on the soil and water that would be used for cultivating vegetables.
The life of the self-settlers, nowadays, and at the age of 80+, is not that easy. Being pretty isolated from the outside world, distanced and forgotten, they see survival as their sole enemy, rather than radiation. Even if they grow their own vegetables in a small garden, and also have a few chickens for covering their basic needs, this does not guarantee their survival. Frequently, they get attacks from wild wolves that kill the chicken and destroy their gardens. Practically speaking, they have to depend on forestry personnel on patrol, tour guides, and visitors for getting them food and medicine supplies from the nearest store (which is located in the town of Chernobyl).
How Can You Visit Chernobyl
Truth be told, the only legal way to visit Chernobyl is through an organized tour. There are various tour operators in Kyiv specializing in Chernobyl visits.
The most popular is the one-day tour, which offers you a quick but sufficient experience for as low as 96 USD. Based on a pre-defined itinerary you will be sightseeing the Chernobyl town, the Pripyat town, the Reactor #4 of the Chernobyl power plant, the Duga radar, and some abandoned villages along the way. The one-day tours are running almost every day, so even last-minute bookings can be served (yet, at a slightly higher price).
For a more in-depth experience, you can opt for a multi-day tour, starting from 279 USD for two days. The pricing is significantly higher, including the cost of transportation, guide, driver, accommodation, and meals (full board). On such tours, you will be having your overnight(s) in Chernobyl town. The main drawback is that the participation of 3 persons is the absolute minimum for realizing such a tour. This practically means that you may have to depend on luck to get other people interested in the same tour and on the same day with you.
Another option is the private tour which can be fully customized based on your personal interests and needs. The pricing rises accordingly but can be shared among the final number of participants. If you are traveling with a group of friends, this tour might be the ideal one for you.
Having visited Chernobyl twice, both on a one-day and on a 2-day tour, I can highly recommend SoloEast Travel as the best tour operator in town! Their tours are simply amazing, while I was particularly astonished by the organization, the delivery of the tour, as well as the professionalism and passionate approach of the crew!
An Extraordinary Addition: Step Inside The Control Room Of Reactor 4
Thrill-seekers opting for a private or a multi-day tour taking place from Monday to Friday ONLY, now have the unique opportunity to see the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant from the inside! Under a special permission that will set you back about 180 USD, you will be allowed access to rooms that have been kept off-limits from public for over 34 years.
One of them is the infamous Control Room of Reactor 4, the place where everything went wrong on the fatal night of April 26, 1986. This room remains highly contaminated until the very day, with the radiation being 40,000 times higher than normal! To keep you safe, you will wear special protective clothing, while you will undergo radiation checks at the beginning and end of the tour.
For security purposes, applications for such special permissions should be made at least 15 days prior to your visit.
Benefits of a Multi-Day Tour
A multi-day tour clearly offers extra time to explore the whole place at a relaxed pace, and what’s more away from the big one-day groups. With that being said, you will get to see every single corner of the Pripyat town and every single POI within the Exclusion zone pretty much on your own. Facilities to be discovered: schools, hotels, sports facilities, the hospital, the supermarket, the bank, the pool, the music hall, the police station, the cinema (bringing the name of “Prometheus”), as well as the town’s trendiest cafe.
Additionally, you will be meeting up with the self-settlers, seeing how life within the exclusion zone is through their own eyes. It comes without saying, that Chernobyl Babas and Babushkas find great pleasure having guests. We personally visited Baba Hanna in the village of Kupovate. Baba Hanna came back to the Exclusion Zone only a few months after the accident with her husband and sister. Both of them have now passed away… Baba Hanna welcomed us with a big smile, a wide hug, loads of homemade food, and of course her own moonshine vodka (made of potatoes)! During our stay, she wouldn’t stop telling us to keep on eating – such a typical grandma! As she said, “you need to eat before you drink” and we had to drink 3 shots each, for… good health!
Meeting a samosely is the best part of a Chernobyl tour. What strikes an outsider when speaking with a self-settler is their kindness, optimism, and strong bond with their ancestors’ land. And, indeed, in a world where nomadic life is the brand new trend, the self-settlers of Chernobyl are here to teach us that nothing values more than your real Home.