Apr 01

Visiting Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – Soloeast Tour (Chernobyl Diaries)

Most people visiting Chernobyl do so in a whirlwind 1-day tour from Kyiv, with 2 hours diving each way.  It’s also possible to do longer trips, but these are much more expensive and for those that have a deep interest in Chernobyl.  My friend and I decided to do the middle trip – a 2-day trip that saw all the sites of the 1-day tour with a little more time, a few other sites, and got to spend a night in a hotel in Chernobyl town.  The date of our 2-day Soloeast tour was exactly 30 years and 3 weeks after the April 26, 1986 disaster.  Many of the things we were about to see showed the impact of 30 years of desertion.

The Start of the 2-day SoloEast Tour

We met in central Kyiv to start our 2-day SoloEast tour.  We first needed to pay the $300 cash each remaining for our tour, the remaining balance on our $50 deposit a couple months ago.  Our passports were checked and we were given a wristband to show that we were “insured” to visit Chernobyl.

There were more than 20 people hanging around and I thought our tour was limited to 10 – but they handled this by splitting us into two groups with two buses, drivers, and guides.  I didn’t have any preconceptions about the typical Chernobyl tourist but tourist but soon found out – predominately male and predominately young (around 30ish).  Our group consisted my friend and I (40’s females), a journalist from the Phoenix New times (20’s female), three friends from the UK (20-30’s males), two police officers from Cologne Germany (20’s males), an avid photographer from Wisconsin (50’s male), and a guy from Detroit writing a book about guides in Chernobyl (30ish male).

It was a 2-hour drive to the entrance of the zone and we watched a video about the disaster and fallout on the way.

We entered a checkpoint and we were in the roughly 30km diameter from the plant that is known as the Chernobyl Exclusion zone!

The first small village visited

Our first stops were at a memorial where there were signs of life (many box elder bugs), and a deserted small town.  I stepped through a floor board and realized this was going to be an adventure!

Chernobyl Town

We continued onto the town of Chernobyl.  This is the largest populated town in the exclusion zone.  Many of the 8000 employees of the Chernobyl plant and surrounding exclusion zone live in this town on a temporary basis.  Only 162 of the residents permanently live here, the others only live in the zone on their work days (either 4 days on, 3 off or 15 days on, 15 off).  Chernobyl town is 14 kms. from Reactor 4.  Most of the town is deserted but there are occupied apartments and a few other buildings in use (the church, the city hall, and a few shops).  We were to stay in the poshest hotel in town that night, but we also had a big lunch there before setting off for our afternoon activities.  We made a quick stop at the river, where the ferries have been rotting for 30 years.

Each sign is a name of a village in the Chernobyl zone that is now deserted.

Angel monument

Chernobyl town mural.

No Soviet town is complete without its own Lenin statue.

The orthodox church, still in use.

Rusting ferry boats on the river.

A monument to the firefighters who were the first casualties of the accident.

 

We had a stop at another checkpoint.  This checkpoint is at the 10km border.  No one is allowed to lives in this inner zone, but many people work here.

The Kindergarten

Our last stop before entering the Chernobyl plant area was a kindergarten.  There were lots of creepy dolls and toys in this small school.

Dorm room in the school.

Dirty doll

Other random toy, posed by tourists.

Don’t look at this creepy doll’s eye. I swear it will hypnotize you!

The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant

Driving into the plant area, we could see Reactor 4 and the new sarcophagus that will eventually entomb the radioactive reactor that’s currently covered in cement that is at risk of failing.

We stopped to see the giant catfish in the cooling ponds.  They don’t seem to mind the light radiation.

I was surprised we could get so close to the Reactor 4 – about 270 meters away.  We had no protective wear during our visit – our only requirement was to wear long sleeve shirts, long pants, and closed shoes.  Even the employees walk around with no extra precautions.

We drove only another 3 km to arrive to the deserted city of Prypiat – the highlight of a Chernobyl tour.  This site is best described in this picture diary – Pripyat in Pictures.

The Chernobyl Town Hotel

After running around town for over 3 hours, we headed back to the hotel in Chernobyl town.  We had a huge dinner.  The bar was open from 7 to 9 so we enjoyed chatting with the other tourists over $1 pints of Ukrainian beer.  The tour requires that no one is allowed to leave the guides or go out into Chernobyl town on their own.  There were fascinating buildings, but I obeyed the rules to stay in the hotel for the night.

The modest, but poshest hotel in Chernobyl town.

Dining room & bar. We had 3 hearty meals & a few beers in this room.

Limited bar hours – the Chernobyl “Happy Hour”. Pints were $1!

Overnight, I discovered I picked up a passenger at Pripyat the previous day.  We had gone in some long grass since there are obviously no working toilets in the town and a small tick attached itself in my belly button!  We had to have a small surgery to extract it in the morning.

It was pouring rain the next day and I was ill prepared – neither with rain gear nor warm clothes warmer than a long sleeved t-shirt.  So, we stopped into the local shop which was a cool stop to see what goods were available to the local residents.  The store was pretty sparse, but I was able to pick up a blue raincoat/poncho with snaps AND a green t-shirt with the embroidered word “Chernobyl
in Ukrainian script, spent a total of $6 for these two items.

The Russian Woodpecker

Our first big stop of the day was the Russian Woodpecker and it’s surrounding support town – another site best described in picture diary – Russian Woodpecker in pictures.

Settlers of Chernobyl

We stopped in to visit a Chernobyl “Settler” so that we could bring gifts and ask any questions we wanted through our guide.  These were older folks that never left Chernobyl after the disaster as this was the only home they had ever known.  There are only a few of them that are still living – most are in their 70’s or above.  We had been warned that this settler’s wife had recently been hospitalized.  He came out and met the van and told our guide his wife had passed away the previous night.  Understandingly, we didn’t get our Q&A or take any pictures, and just left him to mourn.  It was a very emotional moment – a few tears were shed.

The Fish Hatchery & Lake

The next stop was the fish hatchery.  Lots of science was performed here.  You could still see fish samples in small jars, left to collect dust for 30 years.

Cooling Tower for Reactor 5

We hiked a short distance across some train tracks to visit the half-built cooling tower for Reactor 5.  This was mid-construction when the disaster occurred.  We were warned to not step in the moss, as that’s one of the most reactive substances in the Chernobyl Zone today (the nature of moss is that it soaks up and stores the radiation).  A haunting mural was painted inside the cooling tower just a week before we visited.

The scaffolding is still on the cooling tower.

It was massive inside.

This mural was paint on the side of a structure.

Chernobyl zone train tracks.

Skull by the train tracks.

 

Lunch at the Plant

We stopped for a late lunch at the plant cafeteria.  Tour groups must eat very early or late – we didn’t get to eat while the plant employees are having their lunch.  Lunch was plentiful – we got to pick one of everything as part of our tour.

Przewalski’s horses in Chernobyl

While driving around the zone, we were lucky to come upon some wild horses.  These wild horses are descendants from some rare Mongolian wild horses that were relocated to the Zone as an experiment of impact on the zone on animals.  These horses had thrived, with the exception that many had been illegally poached, most likely for food.  I was thrilled so see this horses because I hadn’t seen of these wild horses while in Mongolia a few years earlier.

Children’s Summer Camp

Our last stop in the Zone was a children’s summer camp.  As the buildings were all made of wood, they will be decayed into the woods in the near future.

While leaving the 10-km inner zone, we had to step into a machine to test our hands and feet for radiation.  The guides said there was only one time a tourist had set this machine off, and he had ventured away from the tour into a basement that contained some contaminated materials.

Upon leaving the town, we stopped for a group photo before driving back to Kyiv.

Our guides – two brothers – incredibly cute, funny guys.

Soloeast Tour Group

Our group photo by the Chernobyl town sign.

Traveled May, 2016

 

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