Trip review: Kiev & Chernobyl
At Expat Club we put an incredible variety of destinations on our trip calendar, including some awesome industrial places. Would you like to have some examples? What about car factories? We visited the Audi plant in Brussels several times to live observe the A1 production. Also, we travelled the Netherlands for an exclusive visit to the Tesla factory. So cool to test drive their P90d model in ludicrous mode (google it if you don’t know what that means). We also several times explored the Port of Rotterdam, until quite recent days the world’s largest harbour. Seeing the world’s largest crane, largest ship, and also the largest refinery, is something you don’t do every day. And what to think about a midnight visit to Europe’s largest shipment facility from UPS at Cologne-Bonn Airport. Quite unique to see how 35+ airplanes and 200+ trucks and vans drop hundreds of thousands of packages on dozens of kilometers of beltways running by an ingenious system to get them on their way again a few hours later in other trucks or planes. Despite these being incredible places, each of them just pales in comparison to our Spring 2019 visit to Ukraine. Our final destination, the Chernobyl Power Plant that exploded in 1986 causing the world’s largest nuclear disaster.
The idea to visit the Chernobyl nuclear power plant already began to grow in 2013, Expat Club birth year. In that year and the following ones we visited the Electrabel nuclear plant of Doel near Antwerp a few times. Learning about nuclear power at an actual nuclear facility is something else then reading a newspaper article about it or seeing a Youtube video. There are many misunderstandings about nuclear energy, so these visits were in the first place meant to educate about the benefits and potential dangers of this power source.
The main and immediate question on everybody’s mind is: “Can I safely visit an area where nobody is allowed to live?” Needless to say this was also the question we wanted to have an answer to. The Ukrainian government allows such visits and also the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) explicitly says the area is safe to explore under supervision.
"One may certainly visit the Chernobyl area, including even the exclusion zone, which is a 30 kilometre radius surrounding the plant, all of whose reactors are now closed. Although some of the radioactive isotopes released into the atmosphere still linger (such as Strontium-90 and Caesium-137), they are at tolerable exposure levels for limited periods of time. Some residents of the exclusion zone have returned to their homes at their own free will, and they live in areas with higher than normal environmental radiation levels. However, these levels are not fatal. Exposure to low but unusual levels of radiation over a period of time is less dangerous than exposure to a huge amount at once, and studies have been unable to link any direct increase in cancer risks to chronic low-level exposure." SOURCE: IAEA website.
Still, many of our members from Europe, and in particular Eastern and Northern Europe, very well remember that April morning in 1986 when the news bulletin reported on some accident that happened in the USSR. Although the scope and impact only became clear the days, weeks, months and even years after, many of us on this continent were terribly scared of this invisible danger. Now, well over 3 decades later a low but increasing number of tourists visits Chernobyl and Pripyat, the worker’s town that was completely evacuated after the disaster. What many people don’t realise though, is that the remaining reactors of the power plant was up and running again just one month after the disaster, and even a place like the famous “desolate swimming pool” in Pripyat was used until 1999.
The moment we announced a trip to Chernobyl, the number of interested people was unexpectedly large. We had no idea that so many wanted to visit one of the world’s most desolate places, located around the world’s most dangerous place, the infamous elephant foot that consists of the molten core of reactor #4. Our trip in April 2019 exactly led us to the historic place where all the wrong decisions were made on 25 April 1986, just hours before the explosion. From 11 to 15 April 2020 we go there again (read more here).
Kiev, capital of 3 million
We travelled with a group of people from all around the world (including a few Belgians) to Kiev on Easter Sunday (this holiday is not observed in Orthodox Ukraine). Unfortunately, one of us had to stay behind at the airport since it was not possible to enter the country on a the passport carried due to some recent legal changes. A sad event that never happened on our trips before, but luckily he was able to fly back the next day. The rest of the group continued their way to the country’s capital, a 45-minutes ride away.
As with all Expat Club trips we choose a good hotel at a strategic location. The Park Plaza hotel is situated down-town and only a 15 minutes stroll from the historic Maidan square. A local guide showed us around town, taking us along some of the most interesting and beautiful places, before we ended up at our end point. That evening we enjoyed great food in different restaurants. With the feedback we got from some participants, the restaurant for the last evening was already chosen, plus a great idea for our 2020 trip was born… Georgian food, just delicious!
On the road to Chernobyl
This trip was of course not about Kiev, nor Ukraine. Our destination was Chernobyl, a small town about 160km North from Kiev after which the power plant was called. We are welcome by our guide and host Victoria, a 24-year old lady who wasn’t even born when the accident happened. Surely many of us must have thought “Isn’t she too young to know anything about Chernobyl”. In hindsight this thought definitely was a complete inaccurate reflection of her remarkable capacity to update us on what happened there in April 1986. In fact, she proofed to be one of the best guides that we ever had during all Expat Club trips.
After leaving the capital, the landscape becomes pretty quickly rather rural. Driving by immense agricultural fields, it is easy to imagine why they call this country Europe’s granary. After about two hours of driving we arrive at the first police checkpoint, which is set up along the border of the 30km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Logically, taking pictures is not allowed, although we were allowed to take pictures from the information plagues on the side of the checkpoint.
Our passports are checked with the list that we had to send in a long time in advance. We also get a special dosimeter that we had to hang around our necks while being inside the Exclusion Zone. This little devices measures the dose uptake of external ionizing radiation. At the same time our natural radiation levels were checked, so the authorities were sure we didn’t not arrive with too high levels to begin with. Victoria explains again the rules of our visit, including no eating/drinking outside, no sitting down, not picking up anything, and of course to strictly follow all indications by her and other personnel.
After a short ride we arrive in the small and deserted town Chernobyl with the recognisable welcome sign. Our guide tells us that we shouldn’t stop there now to take a picture, but continue our way to the power plant because the staff was waiting for us. We quickly drive through the village, pass some monuments and several deserted houses. But more about that later. Btw, the Geigertellers that some of us received didn’t really show any signs of elevated radiation (yet).
We’re coming closer to the power plant, but with every kilometer we go further down the road, we also approach the area that was hit the hardest by the nuclear cloud. This is also the reason why there is a second 10-km inner-part of the Exclusion Zone, in which both the power plant and Pripyat are located. Needless to say that it is strictly forbidden to be here on your own. . Victoria tells us it’s not far anymore to the plant and that it should soon appear at the horizon. We are all rather excited to finally reach this incredible destination, and indeed when we go around the corner we suddenly see the huge second dome sarcophagus looming up in the distance.
The first sarcophagus was built quickly after the accident happened, but to ensure potential radiation leakage in the future would be stopped, a second one was built over the old one. This immense operation was among others financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and was finished in November 2016 when the sarcophagus was rolled over the old sarcophagus that covers nuclear reactor #4.
Our first stop is right in the heart of the Chernobyl power plant. This huge construction is about 1-km long and actually holds 4 nuclear reactors, including #4 that exploded. The other ones were back in operation after the explosion, a bone-chilling fact that not many people were and are aware of.
We were welcomed by one of the plant managers, who was going to show us around. We first received another dosimeter. This one just for the factory. And again our radiation levels were measured, before we were allowed to go into the plant.
The next stop was a small conference room where we had to sign some important papers. If Vladimir didn’t tell us, we would have just though it was yet another room. But besides control #4, also in this specific room the plant’s superiors were in complete denial about the actual scale of the accident. For many hours it was believed that it was just a fire but that the core was still intact. Several workers who saw the disappeared core with their own eyes were put aside as delusional.
After we left this bunker room we were ready to start the tour. Oh no… not before we dressed up from top to toe. It made our visit already unforgettable.
Vladimir took us through an elevated hallway, connecting the office building with the actual plant, where immediately another radiation check took place. That also was the start of the immensely long “Golden Corridor”, a hallway connecting all 4 reactors and control rooms. It seemed never ending, but after about a 20 minutes walk, briefly interrupted at some points for some further explanation, we arrived at the very end. This is also where we discovered our Geigertellers could actually make a sound beyond the usual clicking. Whenever we took another step or went around the corner the device would show a different reading. Unexpectedly enough, in most places the radiation levels were just above normal.
The end was merely the beginning of what would bring us into the very heart of Chernobyl as we know it. We passed through some immense walls and smaller corridors, until, suddenly, we found ourselves in control room #4. This was the place where all the wrong decisions were taken. This was the place where the communist-style of managerial leadership led to the greatest $*&@-up of all times. It was hard to imagine for all of us that we were standing in the middle of possibly the world’s most notorious place, at just meters from the elephant’s foot, the molten core of reactor 4.
During this visit we were free to take as many pictures and videos as we wanted. Can you imagine that you’re not allowed to take pictures in Neuschwanstein, but that you can in this heavily guarded place? It does say a lot about certain tourist destinations…
Inside control room #4 our Geigertellers were continuously in alarm-mode, going well above the safe numbers. With 0,12 – 0,15 µSv/u being normal elsewhere on the planet, we noticed at least 5,00 µSv/u or more. The highest found was a whopping 24,60 µSv/u somewhere near one of the panels. Needless to say that such levels are way beyond what is safe. So it begs the question, why go there in the first place? Without going into too much depth, because there are excellent articles that describe this in great details, the /u part of µSv/u provides the solution. Radiation is namely measure in exposure to micro-sieverts (µSv) per hour, so you have to be exposed to a high dose for a longer time before it becomes harmful. During our visit to the plant and the 2-day visit to the Exclusion zone our dosimeters showed the equivalent of about 2 X-rays. Watch this video for some background information.
Our tour inside the plant continued with a visit to nuclear reactor #3, which was located right next to reactor #4. For most of us it was the first time actually seeing such a nuclear facility, let alone being inside of one. Even during our visits to the Doel plant near Antwerp we were not allowed to go inside anywhere for security reasons. We only could walk around the buildings and stand near the cooling towers. Now we found ourself literally standing on top of the decommissioned reactor vat (by 2000 the 3 remaining reactors were all out of service), with the Geigertellers going nuts again (I measured 12 µSv/u in certain areas).
We also visited control room #3, which remained fully intact despite the explosion of unit 4. In fact, only a month after the explosion it was working again. Business as usual in the USSR… At the moment still 10 similar RMBK reactors are operational (source Wikipedia), a bone-chilling idea considering their outdated technology and security risks. This control room gave a good idea of what control room #4 looked like before the accident, because they were virtually identical. The number of buttons is overwhelming. There must be hundreds, maybe thousands. Same thing for the little lights, many of which must have been blinking blood-red before the explosion.
Our guide took us back to where we started. We took off our spotless white clothes and handed in our dosimeters, which would be analysed for radiation (see certificate above). That we were all hungry was an understatement. We were starving since it was already past 15h00. Victoria took us to the nearby cafetaria where the (still) 3.000 workers at the plant and in the area get their daily meals.
Our lunch was simple but tasteful. A true worker’s meal consisting of some meat, mashed potatoes and of course cabbage, topped with cake and coffee for desert, it was much appreciated by our stomaches. We still had several hours to go before we had to leave the exclusion zone, so our next destination was the visitors center behind the plant, the place where regular day visitors go if they visit the area and don’t go into the plant. It contained much interesting information about the accident, as well as a highly detailed scale model of the plant, which, after opened, would show the destroyed reactor inside.
One of the most amazing places we visited was the welcome sign of the town of Pripyat, a brand-new workers town of almost 50.000 inhabitants located just a few kilometers Northwest from the plant. Life was pretty good here compared to the rest of the USSR, with lots of green spaces and modern facilities. This sign was situated right next to the “red forest”, the area that was hit the hardest with nuclear fallout. The below video show how unbelievably fast the radiation levels may rise taking just a few steps forward.
The town of Pripyat is actually another kilometer down the road, and also here you have to enter through a security checkpoint, because the city is part of the exclusion zone.
Pripyat is fully abandoned, nobody is allowed to live here anymore. Unreported entry is strictly forbidden and even punishable with prison sentence. Still, there are apparently quite a few people who roam around the area to discover “hitherto undiscovered” abandoned places. Our first stop is already after just 2 minutes driving, the central square with the Palace of Culture and the Polissia hotel. Many young unplanted trees, smaller bushes and mosses on the ground, have taken over the square, but together with the pictures from old days Victoria shows us it gives a good idea of what it must have looked like and lively it was before 26 April 1986.
We walk behind along the side of the Palace of Culture, towards another open space that may very well be the most iconic part of Pripyat, namely the deserted fun fair with the bumper carts, the carrousel and of course the Ferris wheel. In particular their bright colours stand out in this further concrete-grey and tree-green surrounding. Sad thought it they were never used, because the fairgrounds opening was planned a few days after the accident.
Unlike the public pool that was used extensively until 1999, and the totally fake nonsense pictures of dolls on hospital beds and gas masks that are just placed there for photogenic opportunities, this place in a certain way embodies the sad fate of Pripyat. A place to live became unliveable for the foreseeable eternity, meaning 20.000 years.
Since we would spend 2 days in Chernobyl, we had to leave the Exclusion Zone (both 10km and 30km) to go to our hotel. Whereas there are a few old and dusty hotels inside, we decided to leave the zone to stay in a much nicer 4* hotel along the Dnjepr lake. It was a bit of a ride, but certainly worth it.
The nice restaurant was not the quickest, but (most) of the food was very good and nicely served. Also breakfast looked very nice, and gave us enough energy for a good start of our second day to Chernobyl. Since we stay here in 2020 again, we definitely give them some tips on how to do better.
Our second day would start again in Pripyat, after a short drive straight through the Red Forest. Our Geigertellers were going beserk again, with an increase going from “Brussels-level” to way over the limit, within just seconds. Without this device there would be absolutely no warning sign that you are in one of the world’s most polluted areas, although the road itself is safe to drive over. Walking through this forest may not be a good idea for a second reason, namely that radio-active wolves have thrived after humans left the area. Not exactly your best friends when you go for a walk in the woods.
Having visited the main square, the fun fair, the pool and a theater on the first day, now we went a bit deeper into the city. The bus driver dropped us near the athletics track. After all, sports was deemed important in the Soviet days. But it was especially the next stop that would be one of the summits of our visits, and you can take that quite literally.
Our guide took us to yet another abandoned building, this time a high-rise of maybe 12 or 13 floors. I didn’t count, and since every floor looked the same, I just kept on burning calories going up. Once I reached the top, the views were just stunning. It’s incredible how green Pripyat has become, and how green it is everywhere around this town. The exception is of course the power plant that is located only a few kilometers away.
The weird thing about walking through Pripyat is that there is basically nothing to see. All buildings are basically completely empty, because during cleanup efforts after the accident virtually everything was thrown out of the windows. And I really mean everything. Beds, couches, kitchen, books, toys, clothes, telephones, all went down with the force gravity. So when you walk through these buildings, there is nothing really that surprises you. Forget about the ridiculous pictures with dolls and gas masks. “Photographers” brought them there to add some special effect, but they have little to do with the reality. So, not much to see, yet so much you would like to see. It made me constantly hungry for more. I wanted to walk more, go into yet another building, see what was around the corner. It felt a bit like a video game in which curiosity leads the way.
I’m sure Victoria could have shown us much more, but there were two final places we wanted to see. First, the cooling towers, and second the Duga woodpecker installation. I have been standing a few times next to the cooling towers of Doel near Antwerp. These are rather impressive structures, and fascinating to see how they work (rather simple actually since hot water is dropped from I believe a few dozen meters high, whereas air is sucked into the tower at the bottom and then pushed up with the evaporated “steam”. At Chernobyl the cooling tower is 150 meters high and 120 meters in diameters (a second one was under construction). Standing inside makes you feel really small, although a scream echoes into eternity it seems.
Our lunch was served in the town of Chernobyl itself, where only a few places are open, including a hotel and a shop. Over the years several older residents have returned to live here again, although I didn’t see any of them. The food was again simple but nice nonetheless. We were all hungry and therefore grateful for yet another traditional meal. After lunch most of us took some time to walk around, along the many small abandoned houses. Also here I felt the urge to go inside, but that would involve me touching things, such as doors or plants. And believe it or not, that was exactly what I / we had not done for 1,5 days already. Touching things, picking up stuff, sitting on the ground or anywhere else for that matter, drinking or eating outside, we had all been really disciplined following these rules. It was not difficult at all actually, because the surroundings make it very clear where you are all the time.
Since Chernobyl is situated outside the 10km zone (but in the 30km zone), we had to go back one for the final visit to Chernobyl 2 secret town. Situated about 10km West of Chernobyl and 10km South of the plant, apparently this place was so secret that only few knew about it. We take a left turn on the main road back to the power plant, it leads us straight into a dense forest. The road is long and bumpy, but at the end of the road is a small parking lot and some military facilities.
I kind of walk ahead of the group, anxiously tying to get a glimpse of the notorious Duga installation. An hour later I realise I took a wrong turn, one too early, so I first have to walk through some dark and out-of-this-world strange corridor. I’m glad I have my phone with me, because there are things on the ground and even some holes. Not the safest place, but luckily there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Once outside, I found myself right next to the most bizar structure I have seen in my life. Yes, I also saw pictures before travelling to Ukraine, but it’s just different when you’re standing right underneath a 135 meters high and 300 meters wide radar installation. Our guide explains how it works with a simple stick drawing on the white sand. Clearly other guides explain it in similar ways because I notice many similar sand paintings below the “woodpecker”. This nickname comes from the sound it makes, a repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz repetition rate. Although the Duga radar has no direct link to the Chernobyl power plant incident, a visit to this place deep in the Ukrainian forest makes the experience complete. Tired and overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions we drive back to Kiev.
If you are into visiting abandoned and desolate places, I can assure you that a visit to the Chernobyl, the Chernobyl Power Plant, Pripyat and the Duga woodpecker radar, will be the ultimate destinations on your bucket-list. Many of us had the feeling we just wanted to keep on walking through Pripyat, discovering more deserted buildings, play yards and soviet-style things. It is a surrealistic environment, as if you are taken to a completely different dimension. To me it felt like walking through a world that comes closest to The Walking Dead tv-series, a world in which few people survived some apocalypse and the rest turned into zombies wanting to eat those who were still alive. The total silence, the trees coming through the asphalt and the windows, the glass and mess everywhere, the wild animals that you may run into around every corner. The only thing missing were the “walkers” and the “biters”, the names given to the zombies by the survivors. The only “fakeness” about this place would be the knowledge that despite the evacuation the days following the accident, it was still used by many workers the years after, such as the famous public pool in which many of them swam until 1999. On the other side, this realisation tones down the fear of walking around here in the Chernobyl plant and area. If so many people work here for extended periods, the Ukrainian government and the IAEA says it is safe, then what is there to be afraid of?
The Chernobyl incident is one of those events that everyone remembers. I was only a child of 10 years old. With the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster still fresh in my mind, which happened barely 3 months earlier, this incident would become another one that would be one for the history books. Moreover, the impact of Chernobyl would not only have a far-reaching impact on the lives of so many. It would also have a tremendous impact on the future of the Soviet Union and international politics. By listening to the stories told during our visits, and by watching many documentaries as well as the brilliant HBO series Chernobyl, one thing also became clear to me, namely how the communist hierarchy not only caused this accident, but made it worse and tried to cover it up until it was no longer possible because a Swedish power plant picked up radiation. If it were not for a few heroic individuals who had the courage to stand up against their superiors, and if it were not for all those thousands of firefighters and soldiers who were sent into this warzone unknowing of their fate, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Eastern and Northern Europe and the rest of the continent. The world is grateful for what you did. May you rest in peace.
Join us in 2020 to Chernobyl
Also in 2020 Expat Club will visit Kiev & Chernobyl. If you are interested in joining this trip, you can now pre-reserve your spot. Simply click on the following link to go to the trip information page. On that page you can leave your name and email (or click on the RSVP button if you are logged in as a member). This is for free and comes without obligations. It will indicate what the interest would be for this trip and it allows us to contact you whenever we have more information available on the exact program and trip price. Click here ⋙