Written by Philippa Holloway
(A Runner-up entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)
When considering a holiday, most people don’t decide to visit an area that is heavily restricted or requires a permanent escort and Geiger counter as standard holiday attire. But then maybe you aren’t most people?
So why visit such a site? If like me you remember the events of April 1986, you will be haunted by images of the ravaged buildings and countryside, by the fears it continues to inspire. But there is more to the story than this.
You can book a tour through an agent or private ‘fixer’ who will take your details and arrange all your permits, food and accommodation within the Zone – leaving you to focus on the landscape and history of the event, and maybe find some catharsis in your visit.
Collected by your escort from a meeting point in Kiev City on the first morning, you’ll begin the journey out of town, during which the trappings of modern life will fall away to reveal the breath-taking countryside and cultural remnants of farming culture.
Until you pull up at the first of several checkpoints you will forget that you are entering an area still heavily contaminated with radiation – visiting in Spring or Summer you will be cocooned by lush forests and serenaded by birds, in Winter the deer will be congregating around the hay-racks and birds of prey circling above the leafless trees – the forests have grown back, the animals have come home, and although both are affected in ways yet to be fully understood, the site is far from dead.
Once your permits and passport have been checked your guide will drive you on often deteriorating roads through this wilderness, stopping at villages and buildings abandoned during the initial evacuation and now being consumed by nature back into the earth.
Even if you’ve never fancied yourself in a pith helmet, you can’t help but feel like an explorer, like you are first person to discover these frozen vestiges of the past. There is a reverence in these moments, each building, with its abandoned shoes and relics of a safe and happy life, is like a shrine – to be respected, contemplated and never forgotten.
The town of Chernobyl itself will surprise you – while many of the old homesteads are hidden within dense foliage, much of the town still functions as home and workplace for the people managing the site and working at the plant. Remembering the event and those affected is a key function for the community here – a Memorial Garden listing the villages evacuated provides a stark reminder of how many people were displaced, and the murals painted on the walls express the sorrow of abandonment – the empty crane nest is recurrent motif.
Lunch will likely be provided in the Chernobyl Canteen – expect three courses of hearty local dishes (delivered from outside the Zone!) including borscht and chicken and a smoky drink you may love or hate. Save some bread to take to the cooling ponds and feed to the giant catfish – over a meter in length due, not to radiation, but to the lack of predators and people like you feeding them!
Driving through the forests you might see eagles, beaver, deer, wild boar or even wolves, all thriving now people no longer inhabit the area. The Przewalski’s horse, previously almost extinct, is also now resident in the Zone.
If you stay overnight you’ll be checked into the Chernobyl hotel, a cosy building with a hostel atmosphere. Dinner will again be a social affair with excellent food and a small bar where you can buy excellent vodka to ease you into conversation with the other guests. You will sleep well and wake to the sound of birds outside the window.
No trip would be complete without a visit to the power plant itself, and you can get surprisingly close. The visitor’s centre offers comprehensive talks and the chance to ask questions of local experts. From here a trip to the now iconic town of Pripyat is a must. Those interested in photography will have the opportunity of a lifetime to frame the rusting fairground against a backdrop of natural colours to startling affect.
At the end of your journey your accumulated radiation exposure will be revealed, and you’ll be relieved to find it lower than the dose you received on your flight over. The tour-guides keep you safe every step of the way.
This trip isn’t for most people, that’s true – but maybe you aren’t most people?