With the popularity of HBO’s show, there has been a surge in interest for Chernobyl among tourists. Courtny and I were fortunate enough to take a trip to the exclusion zone with SoloEast, and it was one of the most fascinating and emotional tours we’ve ever been on. So what is a day in Chernobyl like?
NOTE: At the end of the blog, I have written down all of the practical info you’ll need. If that’s all you’re after, just scroll on down!
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is unlike anywhere else in the world. When Courtny and I booked our tour through SoloEast, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We had both learned about the Chernobyl disaster in school, and I had put it on my bucket list years ago. But it’s is such a unique, alien destination. It’s nearly impossible to start the tour with any idea of what your experience will be.
We set off from Kiev with a sense of great anticipation. We had high expectations, and we couldn’t wait to start exploring. On the drive, we watched a few documentaries that got across the basic story of what happened. While this was nice, one of the coolest perks of our tour was that our driver was a “Liquidator” in 1986; one of many men who risked their lives to clean up the plant. While he only spoke in Ukrainian, our tour guide, Alex, also had extensive knowledge of Chernobyl: his grandfather fought to contain the disaster in the period following the explosion.
After two hours in a van, our group of 12 had arrived to the exclusion zone. The border to the EZ is guarded by Ukrainian military and police, and having your passport and a certified tour guide is ABSOLUTELY necessary to enter the zone. Surprisingly, the process was extremely smooth, and the “border crossing to 1986” only took about 10 minutes.
Nothing can prepare you for the actual experience in the zone. Nature has completely taken over this place; it’s both beautiful and haunting to see. Our first stop led us to a few ruined houses. It was a somber introduction to a somber tour – these were peoples’ homes. Walking through the wooded areas is surreal; every couple minutes, we would see another dilapidated building, once part of a thriving region.
The entire tour was unforgettable experience after unforgettable experience. We saw places that were once roads through villages, but are now simply woodland paths past ruined buildings. We gazed upon a row of memorials, not to individuals or families, but to entire villages that had to be abandoned. Around every turn, there were reminders that thousands of peoples’ lives changed forever that day.
One of the early highlights of the tour was our stop just outside the world-infamous Reactor 4. To be that close to the exact spot of one of history’s most tragic accidents was indescribable. Of course, the atmosphere in this location is quite heavy. After all, to this day, we still don’t really know how many people died as a result of this reactor explosion. Initially, the Soviet Union’s official death toll only included the two workers who were immediately killed from the blast. Later in 1986, that number was updated to 31, adding in the first responders and other plant workers who passed away in the weeks and months following the explosion. Thirty-plus years later, it is widely believed that the real death toll is in the tens of thousands, if not higher. How many lives were shortened due to radiation exposure? How many people died prematurely as a result of diseases they otherwise would have never had? We’ll never know exactly how many lives were shortened by the Chernobyl Disaster, but it’s safe to say it’s more than the 31 on the Soviet records. After our time outside the reactor, we made our way into the abandoned city of Pripyat.
If you’ve ever looked into the Chernobyl disaster, you have probably heard of Pripyat. Nearly 50,000 people lived in this once-thriving Soviet metropolis, and it was poised to be one of the Soviet Union’s most prized cities. It was home to some of the brightest minds and hardest workers of the Soviet Union; in short, it was a city that was destined for greatness. Of course, once the reactor exploded, that promising future was literally left in ruins.
Top Left: Just outside of Pripyat lies the Red Forest, a region still high in radiation levels.
Top Right: Chernobyl is one few places in Ukraine where you can see ties to the Soviet Union.
Bottom Left: Provided by our guide, Alex, is a photo of a family on one of the main streets of the buzzing Pripyat.
Bottom Right: That same building in the present day.
Walking through Pripyat is a moving experience. Fortunately, this is also the area we had the most time to explore. We made our way past a ruined grocery store, restaurant, and numerous apartment buildings before we got to the amusement park. There was something so haunting about seeing this tiny amusement park that never saw a guest. It was supposed to open to the public on May 1, 1986, just five days after the accident. The bumper cars, merry-go-round, and Ferris wheel have all been taken over by nature. The amusement park was a perfect microcosm of the entire tour: haunting, maddening, disheartening, beautiful, and, for lack of a better term, really cool to explore.
Immediately following the amusement park, we strolled across the “street” to what was once a soccer stadium. Like the amusement park, this soccer field was never used, as it was scheduled to host its first game in, you guessed it: May 1986. Now, it simply serves as another reminder that Pripyat was a city rapidly rising to prominence. After some time near the stadium and the surrounding buildings, we made our way along the path to reach our van.
Left: The stadium prior to its scheduled opening. Right: The stadium in 2019.
Our final stop on the tour was perhaps the most mind-blowing yet: The Duga Radar. The Duga Radar was a top-secret Cold War radar meant to detect missile launches from the United States. It was located in an isolated secret Soviet village—even the other towns of the Chernobyl region didn’t know of its existence. When people asked what was in that area, the official Soviet Union response was that it was a summer camp. In fact, on the drive to the radar, we passed a bus stop, complete with paintings of children’s toys. Of course, this bus stop was never even used and was only placed there to push the “summer camp” lie. What an absolutely surreal place to step foot in!
Alex explained to us, in detail, the significance of the Duga Radar, and it was fascinating. It contributed to many of the most famous Soviet conspiracy theories at the time: its interference with radio signals led many to believe the Soviets were experimenting with mind and weather control. One unconfirmed story is that Phil Donahue, a US journalist sent to cover the Chernobyl disaster, spotted the Duga Radar upon his arrival. When he asked a Soviet official what it was, he was told that it was an “unfinished hotel.” The most incredible fact of all? The Duga Radar was twice as expensive as the nearby power plant. That fact has led to the theory that the power plant was built with the purpose of providing power to the massive, secret radar. Of course, like so many other aspects of Soviet history, we will probably never know the full extent of the Duga Radar’s purpose. But isn’t that what makes that time period so fascinating?
So many tours involve one big moment, surrounded by a forgettable journey. That is not the case in Chernobyl; every corner you turn presents you with another incredible site. Each building you pass tells another story. And when it is finally time to go back to Kiev, you’ll find yourself longing for a return to the Exclusion Zone. Of course, the guide can make or break the experience, which is why we would absolutely recommend SoloEast. Alex has a true passion for being a tour guide, and he went above and beyond to make sure our entire group had an amazing experience. He gave us tremendous insight on the history of the region, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union. These stories were fascinating, saddening, and, at times, maddening. But there is one thing I can guarantee: you’ll never forget your time in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
IMPORTANT: YOU CANNOT ENTER THE ZONE WITHOUT A TOUR.
How to Book: http://tourkiev.com. You can also find overnight and private tours from SoloEast, which we are definitely doing the next time we go to Ukraine!
Is It Safe?
Yes. It is 100% safe; just don’t do anything stupid. In other words, listen to your guide and don’t stray off the route. If you have a backpack (which we recommend), don’t set it on the ground. Most of the radiation is absorbed by the soil, so that’s the area you want the least contact with. We also washed off our shoes and clothes after the tour, just to cover all our bases.
What to Wear:
- Long sleeves, long socks and long pants: As a precaution, you MUST wear long clothes in the zone.
- Closed-Toed shoes: Don’t take flip-flops to Chernobyl. Just don’t. We wore our waterproof hiking shoes, which came in clutch when we got a brief but powerful rain and hail storm.
- Speaking of rain, bring a poncho and/or raincoat to put in your bag. Better safe than sorry!
What to Bring (in order of importance):
- Passports – you can’t get into the zone without these
- Camera, extra batteries, extra SD card – you’re going to take A LOT of photos
- Snacks – the provided lunch is filling (and tasty), but it’s still best to bring a protein bar to snack on in the van.
- Bug spray – we actually didn’t have much of an issue with mosquitoes, but some people got a few bites. It’s always good to be prepared, especially in a place that nature has reclaimed!
You’re going to pay about $90US per person. That price covers the transportation from Kiev and back (about 2 hours each way), the tour, and a much-better-than-expected lunch.
8:00AM – Meet in Kiev
10:30AM – Arrive to Chernobyl
11:00AM – Begin Tour
12:30PM – Break for Lunch
1:15PM – Continue Tour
4:45PM – Depart Chernobyl
All in all, you’re looking at about 4-5 hours of actual exploring in the exclusion zone. Two of those hours are spent in the famous city of Pripyat, and you’ll be happy to have so much time there. Of course, if you have any questions, we’d be happy to answer! Thank you to SoloEast and especially our guide, Alex, for giving such an informative and enthusiastic tour!