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Group tour: $85


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A Very Dark Tour

The car looking like a frivolous reimagination of a transport from the Mad Max the Fury Road. Our driver was not a coward and pushed the pedal into the floor. Old decaying fences and weary grayish grass flew from both sides of the car as we accelerated through the zone with hard rock playing on the background. Yura and me were not that happy about the music choice but the speed was even scarier.

Yura and Nick are my guide and driver respectively. They are genuinely great guys and know a lot about the zone and the history behind decaying town. The exclusion zone is a mysterious territory in the depths of Ukraine. The region that was ruined by one of the most tragic incidents in the history of nuclear energy. Yes, we talk about Chernobyl.

My trip to the zone started a couple of hours ago and we have been traveling through abandonments and dead wastes for a long time. Bulldozed plains, ruined houses, abandoned carcasses of machinery, and many other signs of a slowly dying formerly inhabited region. The catastrophe that wiped the town from the world map occurred 3 decades ago on April 26, 1986. It was an explosion that was not devastating initially but had multiple shockwaves (physical and political) that ripped the whole planet.

 

Immediately isolated from the rest of the country, the region became an abandoned town. The population was moved. The place turned into a Fallout (the game) like wasteland overnight. However, the levels of radiation slowly changed and reached nearly normal levels eventually. Today, you can actually order a nice guided trip to the zone and get to ride an aggressively tuned Lada.

The abandoned territory is not somewhere amidst the uncivilized lands. In fact, it situated about 130 kilometers away from the capital of the country. The trip to the zone takes less than 2 hours on a car. Even less if your driver’s name is Nick and he is definitely a huge fan of the “Need for Speed” series. You enter the exclusion zone but not much changes. While the background looks “deader”, there are no monuments and/or memorials. There are no museums and huge billboards explaining the story behind these ruins all around you.

The main landmark that deserves recognition is a huge mountain of concrete and steel called the “Sarcophagus”. This construction was erected by the Soviet Union to protect the environment from radiation imprisoned under a thick wall of cement and metal. When we approach the site, Yura says that we must be careful before we go forth.

 

Strange to say, but the sarcophagus is something of a modern icon, like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben; I've seen it so often in photos, I feel I've already been here. Only Yuriy's Geiger counter insists I really am standing just a few hundred metres from the remains of the ruined reactor. Normal background radiation is around 14 micro-roentgens, but when the counter hits nearly 800 and is still enthusiastically clicking, I insist we move inside the adjacent viewing centre.

Protected by the thick walls, we find the serious-minded information officer Julia, frowning through the window at 'the monster which is always near'. While a new cover is planned to safeguard it, the reactor's current condition is alarming. Its columns are shifting, while the huge 'elephant's foot' of melted radioactive fuel inside is cracking, peeling and producing tonnes of toxic dust. 'The chance of a spontaneous chain reaction inside is very low,' says Julia. 'But it is not zero.'

Even the phlegmatic Yuriy seems skittish spending much time here and we proceed to the town of Pripyat. Once home to 47,000 nuclear workers and their families, this is now an atomic-era Pompeii. Tree branches hang heavily over the verges of the town's long, straight streets and burst through the empty shells of restaurants and hotels. Vines have attacked apartment complexes, the football stadium is overgrown and a huge, rusty Ferris wheel creaks ominously.

Classrooms lie with open books and you can still see the detritus of lives interrupted by the order to evacuate, which, thanks to Soviet denial and bureaucracy, came a criminal 36 hours after the explosion. Toys, washing and decorations remain where they were left. People were told they would only be away three days, but most knew otherwise.

Perhaps the most surreal thing about this post-apocalyptic no-man's land is that it has become the dominion of deer, wolves and other animals. Zooming along one of Pripyat's roads, we suddenly realise there's a herd of radioactive boar crashing through the undergrowth. 'Safari!' jokes Yuriy, as we set off in pursuit.

I don't think my companions are being disrespectful. This is their everyday workplace, after all, and Ukrainians do have a fine sense of gallows humour. But does this give casual visitors like me licence to carouse in this devil's playground? I'm not so sure. I laugh but squirm in my seat.

By the time we return to base for lunch, I think Yuriy is running out of things to say about nuclear power. 'Why did you take a job here?' I ask him.

'What should I tell you?' counters Yuriy, unimpressed. 'That I love nuclear power?' Of course, he earns more as a guide than he ever did as an English teacher, and with thorough medical monitoring, it seems worth the probably small risk.

There are currently 360 people living in the exclusion zone, most of them elderly. We visit Maria, 75, after lunch. After the accident, Maria was moved near Kiev, but was unhappy and returned to her bungalow. At her age, she says, she's unperturbed by radiation and even grows some vegetables in her garden. I ask her what it's like being here on her own without former friends and neighbours. 'Well, it's a bit boring sometimes,' she shrugs, 'but what can you do?

 

On the way back from Maria's, we get demob happy, driving fast, playing loud music and laughing. It's a strange end to a strange and uncomfortable day.

My trip remains a painful memory long after I return home. Images like the graveyard of 2,000 helicopters, fire trucks and ambulances used by emergency crews at the disaster keep coming back to haunt me. I feel guilty that I wasn't more moved at the time. I had the excuse of researching a guidebook on Ukraine but did I really expect that to stop me from feeling voyeuristic?

I witter on like this to anyone who'll listen, until at a function I meet someone who's also LAUGHED WHILE AT CHERNOBYL. He feels a bit weird about it too, and it gets me thinking we can't be the only ones.

Several weeks later the true horror of the place finally floods in, as I'm reading extracts from Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl in the newspaper. I hang on every heart-wrenching word of lives long removed from the exclusion zone by death or resettlement. The newlywed fireman roasted inside out by radiation. The six-year-old dying girl who wants to live because she's 'still little'.[1]

And that's when I start crying. For some things, I guess, you don't have to be there.

The Chernobyl explosion had the destructive potential of several atomic bombs.

But Soviet record-keeping and disagreements as to cause and effect make the disaster's toll difficult to quantify.

It's undisputed that two people were killed by the initial explosions and 28 firemen died within the first three months because of exposure to supra-lethal doses of radiation.

Another 70 perhaps died later of radiation poisoning. Then, depending on whose figures you believe, anywhere between 25,000 and 100,000 of the 600,000 'liquidators' later mopping up the toxic mess died from diseases attributable to radiation.

The health of millions might have been affected by the Chernobyl disaster, but the biggest agreed effect has been an increase in thyroid cancer in those who were children, or in their mother's womb, at the time of the accident.

In the most contaminated areas - in the neighbouring country of Belarus - the incidence of the disease is now 90 times the normal limit.

[1] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2005/oct/23/ukraine.darktourism.observerescapesection