When we booked to go on a day trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone we received a mixture of reactions from our friends and family. “Why would you want to go there?”, “surely it’s not safe?” and the odd “That's really interesting, I’d like to learn more about Chernobyl too!”.
Following on from the success of the Sky Atlantic series, Chernobyl, these reactions have changed slightly. People are now a lot more interested in learning about how the desolate area surrounding Chernobyl looks today, only 33 years after the fatal nuclear disaster that claimed an unknown number of lives.
We visited Chernobyl on a tour from Kiev on 5th May 2019, only one day before the HBO series aired in the USA, and two days before it aired in the UK. In this blog we want to share our experiences to let you know what you can expect when visiting one of the most radioactive places on Earth.
Welcome to Backpacks and Beverages!
Hi there ! We're Joe and Nat.
We both share a passion for drinking around the world and our aim is to explore as many countries as possible.
What was the Chernobyl Disaster?
On 26th April 1986, an experiment on reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went catastrophically wrong. Caused by a combination of design flaws and operator error, the rector core overheated, causing a massive explosion that destroyed the core and ignited a fire which burned for the following 9 days. This resulted in radioactive material being released into the atmosphere, which was subsequently deposited over most of Europe.
Watching the series for ourselves after our trip has really made us appreciate the importance of where we were. So we have summed up our experience for anyone who may be interested in visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a place that is said to be uninhabitable for at least 3,000 years...
Our Tour Details
We booked our tour with Solo East, one of several Kiev based firms that run daily trips into the exclusion zone. They had a lot of positive trip advisor reviews and they promised a maximum group size of twelve (which they kept true to) so everyone on the tour could make the most of the guide’s knowledge of the area. Plus, it keeps queue sizes down through each of the checkpoints within the zone, making for much quicker entry.
How long do tours last?
We opted for the one-day trip into the zone, which at May 2019 cost around £90 pp. You can also do a two-day tour which includes spending the night in the exclusion zone for around £250 pp. The price gap between the one and two-day tours may put you off taking the longer trip, especially as the price of pretty much everything else in the Ukraine is so low compared to the rest of Europe. However, after doing some research and speaking to various tour guides on the day, you do get a much more in-depth experience compared to the one-day trip.
You need to be aware that the one-day trip is a very long and tiring day! The tour involves an early get up, meeting at around 8am, arriving back into Kiev between 7 and 9pm (depending on the traffic.) Also, due to the amount of stop offs during the day at each of the tour sites, it can seem a rush to see all the main locations. We were exhausted by the time we arrived back into Kiev!
What should you wear?
Chernobyl tours operate a strict dress code policy. You will need to wear a long sleeved top or jacket, with long trousers and closed toe shoes. No sandals, shorts or skirts are allowed.
Make sure you pack light and preferably take a backpack, as it’s forbidden to place your bag on the ground at any time. If one of your possessions does come into contact with radioactive material and it cannot be cleaned, you will have to leave it behind. This shouldn’t happen if you stay on the path advised by your tour guide and don’t sit down or put anything on the ground!
Are the tours safe?
It is perfectly safe to enter the zone with a guided tour, providing you stay with your tour group and listen to the safety briefings.
During a Chernobyl tour, the level of exposure falls within a range which is similar to the radiation you would be exposed to on a long-haul plane flight. Just remember to always follow your tour guide, the Ukrainian military patrols within the zone do not take kindly to tourists that wander away from their tour groups to explore on their own and DEFINITELY DON’T take anything away as a souvenir from the zones.
Things to consider...
1 - If you are booking the tour online make sure you opt to rent a Geiger counter, a device used for measuring background radiation. It is interesting to monitor the radiation levels throughout the day and as we can’t see, hear or smell radiation, it would be like visiting an art gallery without your glasses! and they also make for great photo opportunities!
Throughout the day the counters remain quiet with a general ticking noise, until you are advised to hold them against a known ‘hotspot’ by your tour guide and you see them go wild. This really makes the tour come to life. Don’t worry, the radioactive areas you will be taken to cannot give you a harmful dose.
2 - Another point to note for the girls especially, the toilet stops are extremely limited, and the only decent bathroom stop is for lunch at the canteen. Make sure you have a pack of tissues and anti bac gel at the ready! Ladies, Nat would recommend planning your Chernobyl trip for a time when you know you won’t be having your period, as she can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would have been.
3 - We would recommend packing enough snacks, snacks and more snacks to last you for the day. There is only one stop off for food during the day for lunch at the canteen, so you will need plenty to keep you going for the 12-14 hours you will be on the tour. We were getting very hangry by the time we made it back to Kiev!
What to expect during the tour
Tours busses leave from Independence Square in the centre of Kiev at around 8am, your tour rep will meet you, check your passports, confirmation and then advise which minibus you’ll be on. There is a McDonalds conveniently located nearby so we would recommend grabbing a breakfast or even taking one with you to eat on the journey.
It is a 2-hour drive from Kiev to the first checkpoint at the edge of the exclusion zone. You do stop at a petrol station on the way down where you can also get drinks and snacks. You should definitely use this opportunity to take a bathroom break as well!
At the first checkpoint you need to show your passport to the guards (you need to send your passport info to your tour operator before the trip) while they do a quick search of the tour bus. Your tour guide will issue you with individual tickets for the tour at this point and a Geiger counter if you’ve reserved one.
From here, you will enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and visit several locations throughout your day. For us our first stop was one of the many abandoned villages inside the zone, where we saw what life would have been like in rural Soviet Ukraine. Despite the whole area being completely overgrown, most of the buildings were still standing, sort of!
Next up was the Chernobyl town sign, which interestingly, still has the Soviet hammer & chisel symbol. Inside the exclusion zone is the only place throughout all the former Soviet Union that you can still see Soviet propaganda symbols, as these were removed from everywhere else following the downfall of the USSR.
From there we went to a former military base which is home to two enormous radio antennae called “The Russian Woodpecker”, this was used during the cold war to detect incoming ballistic missiles fired at the Soviet Union. This was also the first opportunity our guide took us inside to explore some of the abandoned buildings.
At this point it was time to stop for lunch, which was surprisingly good for a small canteen in a nuclear wasteland! The food is typical Ukrainian fare of meat, potatoes and bread, they did offer vegetarian options too.
After lunch we finally made it to the power plant site itself and got surprisingly close to the reactor building. You can’t actually see the damaged reactor as it is contained in a domed metal structure, where automated robots will be working for around the next 100 years to safely dismantle and dispose of what remains of the power plant.
The last stop on our trip was the abandoned city of Pripyat. Purpose built for the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Pripyat was home to approximately 50,000 people at the time of the disaster. The tour of Pripyat takes you to the main square, the leisure centre, the hospital, the school, the supermarket and the famous fairground which you will have probably seen plenty of creepy photos of (the highest level of radiation we experienced was detected when our tour guide placed the geiger counter near one of the carriages of the Ferris wheel).
After Pripyat you will make your way out of the exclusion zone, and from there it’s another couple of hours back to Kiev traffic permitting. It took us around three and a half hours to get back to the city ☹
It was a very long (and incredibly interesting) day so do bare this in mind, in hindsight the 2-day tour may have been the better option but as we didn’t have long in Kiev unfortunately it didn’t work as an option for us. If you do have the time we would love to hear your opinion on the 2-day trip, please drop us a comment in the box below or a message on instagram.
We hope that this helps solve your debate on whether to take a trip to explore the most “dangerous” place on Earth 😊
We also fell in love with the beautiful city of Kiev and will be posting a blog about our recommendations / itinerary as soon as we get chance! So watch this space for more help planning your Ukrainian escape 🙂