“Everybody smile. Say ‘cancer’!”
It’s not a joke many tour guides would dare to make when their group asks for a photo – but this wasn’t a typical tour and we weren’t your average punters.
My nine friends and I were on a stag do in Chernobyl. Not for us the predictable options of Amsterdam, Prague or Hamburg. We’d chosen to send our pal off on the road to married bliss with a trip to the most radioactive place on the planet, where – 32 years ago – a lethal nuclear catastrophe shocked the world. What could possibly go wrong?
So-called “dark” tourism, of course, is nothing new. Chernobyl tours have been offered since the late 1990s, while millions visit battlefields and former prison camps every year. Enterprising locals in Tuscany even offered boat trips to gawp at the wreck of Costa Concordia, and tourists in New Orleans were briefly encouraged to see the districts worst hit by Hurricane Katrina.
But is it acceptable to include such activities in a stag weekend?
In the majority of cases, I’d say not. Many “dark” tours are inappropriate whatever the circumstances. Slum visits, offered in Mumbai, Rio and South Africa, have always sat uneasily with me. I wouldn’t dream of visiting the floating wreck of a cruise ship, nor seek out the most devastated corners of a city that’s been hit by a natural disaster.
Furthermore, the sort of loutish men that ruin the reputation of British travellers should be kept well away from any location where sensitivity is required – and I’d be aghast if any stag party, no matter how sober, turned up at Auschwitz.
Chernobyl, while not as horrifying as a former concentration camp, is still a place where dozens lost their lives. But we were a sensible bunch. We took care not to drink excessively the night before – and, of course, spent the day with a suitably serious collective mindset.
The tours are conducted with sensitivity too, the aforementioned joke notwithstanding. But then Ukrainians like our guide tend to have a dark sense of humour. It comes from 100 years of revolutions, political corruption, war and famine – not to mention those bitterly cold winters (it was -6C on the November day we visited).
An organised tour is the only way to see Chernobyl. A handful of companies offer day trips from Kiev, as well as overnight stays – yes, there’s a rather spartan hotel inside the exclusion zone. We opted for the former, preferring the comforts of the Ukraine capital.
It’s a two-hour journey by minibus, during which time we were shown a documentary about the disaster and another on the ongoing efforts to clean up. The first checkpoint was 30km from the ill-fated power plant. Passports were scrutinised, legs stretched, and coffee and souvenirs – including gas masks – hawked. It was here we would be screened for radiation upon our departure, too.
Another check followed at 10km, before the first signs of abandonment arrived. The most famous “ghost” town is Pripyat, a few miles from the power plant and once home to 50,000 Soviet workers and their families, but smaller villages – also left behind – lie beyond it. In most cases the clean-up effort here consisted of simply bulldozing houses and burying them underground and we spied dozens of little mounds where homes once stood. In 1986 they would have been clearly visible from the road; now they are hidden behind new trees and increasingly hard to spot.
The Chernobyl town sign provided our group photo opportunity, and for the first time our guide unveiled his trusty Geiger counter. Background radiation in cities varies from around 0.1 to 0.4 microsieverts per hour, he explained. So what about the Chernobyl exclusion zone? We waited with baited breath, and a little apprehension, for the reading… 0.2. The explanation? Concrete. On the roads, radiation doesn’t linger. He then thrust the counter at the soil, and the reading rocketed to 10. That’s more like it.
Returning to our minibus we were surprised by the sight of three dogs bounding down the road towards us. Chernobyl, curiously, is home to hundreds of stray hounds who have learned to survive in the woods surrounding the power plant, dodging wolves and begging for scraps from guards, workers and tour guides. A non-profit US organisation, Clean Futures Fund, tags and neuters them, and even finds homes for some on American soil.
Not long after, we had our first glimpse of the power plant itself. Until recently this consisted of a concrete sarcophagus, hastily erected in the weeks after the disaster to stem the radiation pouring out of nuclear reactor number 4. But the levels in the immediate vicinity were still dangerous. Since 2016, however, the old Soviet structure has been contained within a vast £1bn steel arch that dominates the skyline. To protect workers it was constructed a few hundred metres away and moved into position on a teflon track. Inside, robotic arms are finally finishing the job of picking apart the nuclear muddle. It also means visitors can safely stand within 100 metres of the exact spot where the disaster began. Geiger counter reading? Just 0.8.
There are other buildings too. Chernobyl had three other reactors and continued to provide power until as recently as 2000. And activity, not just in the form of tourism, continues. We spot a few workers in blue overalls, a sign that the steel arch isn’t quite finished, while a new solar power plant opened here just last month. A little way up the road, in the small abandoned town of Chernobyl, is that tourist hotel, where we eat lunch alongside around 20 others. Is this all safe, we wondered? Tour companies insist it is, but that doesn’t sit too well with statements from Ukrainian officials suggesting the area will not be inhabitable for another 20,000 years. A few hours sounded fine but I wasn’t sure I’d fancy spending the night.
Our afternoon was dedicated to the highlight for most visitors: Pripyat. By far the biggest settlement in the exclusion zone, it is the original ghost town: a sprawling, Brutalist Cold War museum, frozen in time – but which nature is slowly reclaiming. Officially, you’re not supposed to enter the buildings – but tour guides are pretty relaxed when it comes to enforcing the rules, and most will lead you to the most eye-catching spots.
We visited the shell of a supermarket, with its numbered aisles, rusting shopping trolleys and empty freezers; the solemn fairground with its famous Ferris wheel, due to open four days after the explosion, but which never welcomed a single paying guest; a school whose textbooks, posters and wall charts are still there, gathering dust; and a vast echoey leisure centre.
Most haunting of all was the hospital, our final stop. After the explosion at the power plant, brave fireman were sent to put out the subsequent graphite fire. It was essentially a death sentence. Stricken with radiation poisoning, many were posted here, and the water-filled basement remains one of the most radioactive places in the world. We steered clear, but visited an eerie children’s ward filled with empty cradles, and a former operating theatre. As we exited, our guide pointed out the tattered remains of a fireman’s jacket. Geiger reading? 1,500. Time to go.
Is Chernobyl a suitable stag do activity? If you want something you’ll remember for the rest of your life, it is a fine option for any sensitive traveller. It’s desolate, depressing, and like nothing else on Earth.
And it will probably leave you in need of a stiff drink.
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