My Trip To The Most Radioactive Place On Earth; Chernobyl
I can't remember exactly when I learned about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
It occurred just 2 months after I was born (you can guess my age now), so I doubt my mum had read the evening news report to me as a bedtime story. Perhaps it was the horror film in 2012, Chernobyl Diaries; or maybe I came across pictures on the aftermath of Chernobyl simply because I spend a good portion of my day googling about interesting destinations to visit.
I'm a huge fan of post apocalyptic (and Zombie) movies, and Chernobyl, together with the "ghost town of Pripyat", are as "post apocalyptic" as tourist attractions get. Ever since I heard that it was possible to visit the Chernobyl power plant and its surrounding radioactive "Ghost Town", I knew this would be a trip I'd definitely have to make. In fact, I even listed a trip to Chernobyl as one of the 23 bucket-list experiences I'd like to experience before I die.
I was finally going to Chernobyl. I would get to be the star in my own post apocalyptic movie.
About The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
On the morning of 26 April 1986, an experiment at Rector No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went wrong. An explosion resulted in a radiation breech so severe, it was the equivalent of 400 Hiroshima's (400 atomic bombs); and a cloud of radiation covered most of the Soviet Union and Europe.
Residents in the nearby town of Pripyat saw the explosion, but no one knew what was going on. The incident was heavily downplayed by the Soviet media. It wasn't until nuclear physicists in Sweden detected an abnormal amount of radiation did the Soviet Union finally make a public statement on the matter.
Evidence of widespread radiation sickness was detected and people were falling sick within hours. 1 day later, an immediate evacuation of all 50,000 residents of Pripyat was announced. Residents were told to "take nothing and leave immediately, they would be back in a few weeks" (obviously they didn't return).
On 27th April 1986, Pripyat took it's first step towards its new status as the "ghost town" of Ukraine.
The Chernobyl Tour
I'm standing in front of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor listening to the guide talk about the history of Chernobyl, showing us a picture of how the Reactor was like before and after the incident.
Tours cost anything from $89 USD to over $100 USD depending on how early you book and what season it is. The hostel I was staying in was affiliated with Solo East Travel, one of the larger Chernobyl tour operators in Kiev.
I had to send in my passport information and book my tour around 10 days in advance as I "needed to be screened" (no idea for what though). There were about 10 of us on the tour and we departed from Kiev at 8am on a minibus. For what must have been half the journey, the driver played a DVD on how the incident took place and its aftermath, probably so we would understand more about the significance of the place we were visiting. From Kiev, it was another 2 - 3 hours before I finally arrived at the first checkpoint, signaling I was at the entrance of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
There was an English speaking guide assigned to us. Armed with a Geiger counter (to gauge the levels of radiation) and an album of photographs, he would explain and share stories on the incident and show us how things were BEFORE and AFTER the event.
Must See Sites in Chernobyl (Besides the Reactor)
A visit to Chernobyl and the town of Pripyat offers a glimpse into a world that no longer exists. Standing at the entrance of the exclusion zone, I felt excitement. But the deeper in got, the excitement gave way to an eerie sensation as wave after wave of the devastation and events that day actually started to hit me.
The experience of it all was just mind-blowing.
The Azure Swimming Pool
This swimming pool used to be one of the most popular places in town. Imagine what it must have been like 30 years ago.
The Azure Swimming pool from another angle. This is one pool you'll not want fall into. I guarantee there won't be a splash.
The Amusement Park
This is the entrance of the amusement park. The guide showed us a photo of how it used to be like. Look how overgrown it is now!
Arguably the most iconic "site" on the Chernobyl tour; the Ferris Wheel
I loved bumper cars as a kid. Pity the children of Pripyat never got to try this.
I read somewhere that the amusement park actually opened on the day of the incident. One day later, everyone was evacuated.
Infant care anyone? Not sure how they packed up the babies for evacuation. Sure hope they weren't left behind.
To get to the rooms, we had to walk through dark hallways like this one (this was the brightest hallway, hence the photo)
Not the best room to have an operation.
I liked exploring haunted places like "Old Changi Hospital" (in Singapore) as a teenager, but I'm not so sure I'd dare to spend the night here.
The Community Center
Like the amusement park, the community center has become overgrown.
Anyone fancy a game of soccer? The floorboards might give way though.
The community center's pool. There might be water in this one, but I wouldn't want to make a splash.
It's possible to climb to the top of the hotel for a birds eye view of Pripyat and Chernobyl Reactor.
The Middle School With Gas Masks
Hundreds of gas masks can be found all over this school
Evidently the gas masks weren't of much help as most of the rescuers and scientists died themselves
No school for today (and for the past 30 years to be precise).
Middle School No. 3
The Apartment Blocks
Dense vegetation has over run most of the town, save for the larger buildings.
It is possible to climb up close to 17 levels of stairs in some of the apartment blocks to get a birds eye view of the city and the Chernobyl Reactor. I didn't have the energy for anything like that though. Evidently, the lifts are no longer working.
Pay first, drive later. In the days of Soviet Union, you had to pay for your car first, then collect your car around 10 years after.
A typical house in the city of Pripyat. Over time, the structure has rotted away.
Doesn't this remind you of our primary school halls in Singapore? Looks like the same design is used all over the world.
Used to be an Ice cream shop.
One of the village kindergartens. A few scary dolls left behind.
The scariest doll I came across
Yet another doll. You see it?
Is It Safe?
Considering I haven't become a member of the X - Men (yet), I would presume so. While prolonged exposure to radiation is obviously lethal, tour companies and the authorities have taken steps to make Chernobyl as safe as nuclear disaster sites could possible get.
Before I paid for my tour, I was given specific instructions. No siting on the ground, no touching anything, no slippers, shorts or t shirts. I had to be fully covered up (which explains my dressing), and had to stay with the guide at all times. The guide carried a Geiger counter, and as long as we were with him, we'd probably be okay (he hasn't turned into the X - Men either after YEARS of leading tours into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone). And before we left, we were had to go through a another few rounds of screening to confirm we weren't "contaminated".
The human body can be exposed to an "X" amount of radiation. In some places, the maximum exposure possible is nothing more than10mins, anything more is deadly. In other areas, even hours of exposure would be still within humane limits. As long as you stick to the guide (and not wonder off on your own), the total amount of radiation exposure you would receive should be no more than the radiation exposure one receives on a long haul flight. Of course, any attempt to explore Chernobyl without a guide or Geiger counter would probably be suicide (and illegal).
Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was one of the most unsettling experiences I'd ever had. Making my way about a "post apocalyptic" sort of town sent all sorts of thoughts through my head. What must it have been like when they were forced to evacuate? Did the survivors ever comeback to visit? How would it be like if I too were forced to evacuate Singapore?
I wondered how the town looked like before April 1986. I imagined the residents just going about their life, and all of a sudden, they no longer had a home. Did they blame the Soviet government? (In Singapore we would definitely blame ours)
Why do I travel the way I do? Why do YOU even travel? For a mental break? Because your friends are doing it?
Experiences like these can drastically shape ones perspective of life. Maybe that's why I'm sort of weird (at least my friends tell me that). But what I will say is; "better to travel and have a constantly evolving worldview than to stay at home (or keep on visiting the same boring places) and have the same fixed life goals or the narrow mindedness that majority of Singaporeans do."
Today's "tourist attractions" are all about the Eiffel Towers, Northern Lights, and the Cherry Blossoms of the world. As of now, Chernobyl is just one of those "dark tourism" destinations that no one knows about. But mark my words; in another 20 years from today though, Chernobyl could very well be the World's Greatest Travel Destination.
What are you waiting for Singaporeans? Or are you planing to remain sheep all your life? Be ahead for once, visit Chernobyl; the No.1 travel destination of the future.