Visiting Chernobyl and taking a tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone was the entire reason that I travelled to Ukraine. That may sound morbid, but after I discovered that it was possible to walk around the abandoned towns and villages within the exclusion zone, I became obsessed with the idea of visiting Chernobyl.
That said, I was also plagued by the same question that likely concerns you. Is it safe to travel to Chernobyl? What are Chernobyl radiation levels in 2021?
- 1 Introduction to Chernobyl
- 2 Why Visit Chernobyl?
- 3 Is Visiting Chernobyl Ethical?
- 4 Visiting Chernobyl & the Exclusion Zone
- 5 Guide to Travelling to Chernobyl
- 6 Visiting Chernobyl: Chernobyl Tour Operators
- 7 Chernobyl Safety Rules
- 8 Chernobyl Travel Tips
Introduction to Chernobyl
At approximately 1.30am on the morning of the 26th April 1986, reactor four of the Chernobyl power plant went into meltdown, causing a huge steam explosion. Two workers were killed instantly in the blast.
Many people in neighboring Pripyat and other towns came out of their homes to see what was happening. However, they generally carried on going about their business as normal because they had so much confidence in the safety of the power plant.
By this point, it was too late. A large number of people in the area would get ill or later die from the side effects of acute radiation sickness.
The nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl plant disaster was 400 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. This makes Chernobyl the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind.
The true impact and nature of the explosion were unfortunately not realised in the early stages. It was a matter of days before people living close to the reactor were made aware of the risks posed to their health and asked to evacuate.
Why Visit Chernobyl?
Chernobyl gives you a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic world. If mankind was to die out, this is how the world would look. Outdoor plazas and amusement parks are overgrown with trees and grass, and wild animals now rule the streets.
A Glimpse into a Post-Apocalyptic World
The towns and villages that have been abandoned here lay derelict, gradually rotting and disintegrating. In 100 years, these structures will no longer be standing.
As the buildings become weaker, it may not become possible to visit in future decades. The time to tour Chernobyl is now.
When mandatory evacuations were issued by the Soviet government, the people in the towns surrounding the plant were advised that they could return in three days. Those three days have lasted for 34 years and counting.
Scientists predict that the zone will not be safe for human inhabitance for another 20,000 years. Chernobyl radiation levels in 2021 are still dangerously high in Pripyat, the red forest, and the area around the reactor.
Because of the nature of the evacuation, people left their homes and workplaces calmly. They left everything behind because they thought that they would soon return.
This is what makes visiting Chernobyl so eerie. Kitchens and dining rooms have dishes set out in preparation, kid’s toys and stuffed animals are scattered around bedrooms waiting to be played with, and family portraits remain hung up on walls.
An Important History Lesson
History is always more fascinating when it’s interactive. Reading books and watching documentaries about Chernobyl is one thing. However, standing alone in Pripyat and staring across to statues of Lenin that still stand among the crumbling hi-rise apartment buildings is something else entirely.
Nothing has changed in Chernobyl since the 1986 explosion. Soviet propaganda posters are still plastered on apartment block walls and Lenin statues still stand like shrines.
In Chernobyl, the year will always be 1986. Where else would you get the opportunity to journey back in time to a Soviet city?
Is Visiting Chernobyl Ethical?
There is always going to be some debate as to whether visiting dark tourism destinations such as Chernobyl is an ethical thing to do. After all, Chernobyl is not just a “cool abandoned place”, it is a place where thousands lost their lives and thousands more would have their lives permanently changed forever.
However, there is a distinct difference between those travelling to exploit and those travelling to learn. In some ways, visiting places like Chernobyl acts as a stark reminder of what people are capable of, and the dangers of nuclear energy.
World history is not all rosy. If you dismiss hardships and traumas, you do not get a complete view.
Visiting Chernobyl allows you to understand an important, and painful part of Ukraine’s history. Provided that you are respectful, it is a way to pay your respects to those fallen. Dismissing the prospect of travelling to Chernobyl, putting blinkers on to the events of 1986, and losing the opportunity to learn about the events before and after the explosion would be a real shame.
Visiting Chernobyl & the Exclusion Zone
The Chernobyl zone is far more than simply the powerplant and a small scattering of houses. It covers a 30 km by 30 km area filled with cities, towns, and villages.
Over 100 villages were completely wiped off the map as a consequence of Chernobyl. In 1986, over 250,000 people had to be evacuated.
The Chernobyl exclusion zone is essentially divided into two sections – the 10km zone and the 30km zone. The 10km radius of the exclusion zone is an extremely contaminated area close to the plant.
Meanwhile, the 30km zone is an area that is not completely safe. However, the radiation levels here are not so different from those in Kiev. A quick rundown of what you can expect to see in the zone is detailed below.
You have to pass through two police checkpoints when travelling to the Chernobyl zone. You will be asked to present your passport at both of them.
The peculiar thing is that you do not immediately realise that you have entered Chernobyl. The sun is still shining, the birds are still tweeting and you don’t really notice a difference in the atmosphere.
Pripyat is the town that was built in 1970 to house those working at the nuclear plant. It was considered luxurious and advanced for its time. The average age of people living in Pripyat was 26-27.
You will be taken aback by the scale of the town. Entire Soviet apartment complexes, stores and town plazas are left abandoned.
Abandoned Amusement Park
There is an incredibly eerie amusement park located in Pripyat. It was built with the intention of having a grand unveiling on the 1st May 1986.
Sadly, since the disaster happened on April 26th, the Ferris wheel never had the chance to turn, and the dodgems never got to run. The ticket booths still remain, with the controls and logbooks as they were in 1986.
Abandoned Towns and Villages
There were approximately 150 villages within the exclusion zone that had to be evacuated. You will stop at a couple of these when visiting Chernobyl.
It is now difficult to spot many of these from the road unless you know precisely where they are. Most of the towns and villages are now overgrown and have been truly reclaimed by nature.
Some people are actually still living in some of the villages here. There are over 100 “self settlers” that reside within the 30km Chernobyl zone.
The Ukrainian government allowed these people to return to their homes after the disaster. They are mostly elderly individuals aged 70 and above.
Since there are no shops in the zone, a van drives by the villages once a month to bring food and supplies. There are a handful of elderly people living in more remote parts of the exclusion zone.
These people don’t have any access to the supply van or any stores. As such, they grow vegetables, fish, hunt, and generally live off the land.
The “Russian Woodpecker” Secret Radar
“Duga” or “The Russian Woodpecker” is the name of the huge secret antenna that was built several miles from Chernobyl. The contraption was built with the intention of spying on the USA.
The horribly ironic thing about visiting here is that there are gas masks strewn everywhere within the houses and buildings. This was not because of Chernobyl though. The people were so paranoid about a nuclear war with America that they never considered the threat of the power plant in their backyard.
It is quite surprising to see that Chernobyl is still a bustling working town. There are a lot of functioning administrative buildings here.
Since there are scientists and engineers perpetually working on the plant, accommodation, shops, and a church exist here for them. There is also a hotel here for people that wish to spend more time travelling in the zone.
Strangely, there are a lot of communist-era statues in the zone that have never been moved or replaced. As an example, there is a huge statue of Lenin that still stands. In Chernobyl, the year will always be 1986.
The Nuclear Power Plant
When visiting Chernobyl, you can get right up close and personal with the nuclear plant and the reactor that caused the disaster. After the 1986 incident, a sarcophagus was built in order to contain the radiation within the plant.
However, it started failing. To stop a Chernobyl 2 from happening, a team of international engineers built a huge domed structure to contain the reactor which was completed in 2017. As such, that monstrosity will never see the light of day again.
Guide to Travelling to Chernobyl
As you can imagine, Chernobyl is not the sort of place that you can just wander into, snap a few selfies, and be on your way. To enter the zone you need to be accompanied by a licensed tour guide. You will pass through several police checkpoints on the approach to the zone.
Organising a Chernobyl Tour
If you are travelling to Ukraine and you have a pretty good idea that you want to visit Chernobyl, you should try to book your tour as early as possible. Government clearance must be provided to each Chernobyl visitor in advance.
Travelling to the zone is not something you can do on a last minute whim. Most tour companies require at least two weeks advance notice.
Is it Safe to Travel to Chernobyl?
The question of safety is most people’s concern about travelling to Chernobyl and admittedly it was mine too. Officially, yes it is safe to visit the zone, provided that you follow the rules set out by the Chernobyl administration.
During your time in the zone, you will pass through areas of high radiation. However, you are not in these places long enough to risk the radiation causing any detriment to your health.
A day in the zone exposes you to the same amount of radiation as you would receive on a two-hour flight.Now, I am by no means a scientist but you can find an interesting guide here which explains more about the radiation levels at Chernobyl and the types of radiation you encounter.
Leaving the Chernobyl Zone
When leaving the zone, you have to pass through the same police security checkpoints again. This time you have to go through two full-body scanners to make sure that you haven’t been contaminated.
I was one of the lucky ones. I made it out! If the machine beeps, you have to resign yourself to a life of living in Chernobyl forever and ever! Just kidding. Provided you follow the advice outlined by your guide, you will have no issues.
Chernobyl Tour Operators
Travelling to Chernobyl does not come cheap. A day in the zone costs around $80 – $150 for a group tour, or $150 plus for a private tour. A few reputable tour operators include the below:
- Get Your Guide
- Solo East Travel
- Chernobyl Welcome
- Young Pioneer Tours
At $80 for the day tour, the price was pretty standard in terms of what you should expect to pay for a Chernobyl tour. Be cautious of using a tour provider that looks really, really cheap. Some of them just breeze through the zone without providing a lot of information.
Other Tour Options for Visiting Chernobyl
It is also possible to take photography and helicopter tours of the Chernobyl zone. The one-day tour lasts around 11 hours in length but 2-3 day tours are also available.
The area is more vast than you may realise. A two-day Chernobyl visit may be of interest if you are especially interested in the history of the site. However, the average cost for this is over $300.
Chernobyl Safety Rules
There are some things to be mindful of when travelling to Chernobyl from a safety perspective. This is the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster after all and radiation is still high in the area. When travelling to Chernobyl you should be mindful of the below:
Don’t Touch or Eat Anything in the Zone
That means no foraging for delicious, radioactive Chernobyl berries (it was hard to restrain myself but I managed!) and no fishing for two-headed radioactive carp in the water around the plant.
No Abandoning Your Guide
Some people deliberately try to ditch their guides so that they can run off into the ruins of Chernobyl and take cool photos. That isn’t just stupid, it’s actually incredibly dangerous.
You could get sick or even die. The Chernobyl tours follow “safe” routes through the zone.
There are some areas (like the red forest) where radiation is incredibly high. If you are there for extended periods, it will not be good for your health.
Don’t Go Inside Buildings
This rule was recently introduced in Chernobyl in 2008. It is mostly because of the condition of some of the buildings.
Since places have been abandoned and uncared for for over three decades, floorboards are falling in, broken glass is everywhere, and elevator shafts are wide open. Our guide bent these rules a little.
She had been working in Chernobyl for a few years and knew the safe places to go. Walking around the abandoned hi-rises in Pripyat was one of the highlights of the day for me.
Cover Your Skin
In Chernobyl, you need to keep as much of your skin covered as possible. That means closed-toed shoes or sneakers, with long-sleeved shirts and pants.
No short shorts in the zone! I doubt they’d let you on the tour if you were dressed inappropriately. However, there are actually Chernobyl police on site!
Mostly they are looking for people who have snuck into the zone illegally. However, they may approach you even if you just roll up your sleeves!
Chernobyl Travel Tips
A few additional things to keep in mind when visiting Chernobyl are detailed below. These considerations will help you to have an enjoyable and trouble-free visit.
Pee When You Can
Seriously. I’m sorry to be crude but there aren’t any toilets in the zone after you leave the Chernobyl restaurant.
That means that from 12 pm until 5.45 pm you won’t encounter any bathrooms. I guess you can go and squat somewhere in the woods.
If you’re a guy it’s not so tricky. But I’m a lady (kinda).
Wear Your Scruffs
It’s possible that the clothes you wear could become contaminated and be left behind (especially shoes!). I just wore some cheap sneakers and outdoor wear. You should also wash your clothes after getting home, just to be safe.
Clean Anything That Touches the Ground
If you want to get some good photos at Chernobyl, it’s fine to bring your tripod. However, you need to make sure that you clean it afterward. The same goes with putting your bag down.
Buy Water and Snacks Before You Go
Tour buses typically stop at a service station en route to visiting Chernobyl. The journey to Chernobyl from Kiev takes around two hours each way, so pack some snacks with you.
Don’t Dilly Dally. Go Now!
Within the next few decades, it’s likely that it will not even be possible to visit Chernobyl. In some of the abandoned buildings, the floor was sinking in and I had to jump over holes in the ground. Go now, and witness a piece of history on a Chernobyl tour before it’s too late.
Have you thought about taking a Chernobyl tour, or are you worried if it’s safe to visit Chernobyl? Feel free to reach out to me in the comments below!