I was only 3 years old in 1986 when the incident at Chernobyl hit the headlines, so I have no real recollection of the accident happening. I don’t know when I became aware of the disaster, and the potential world changing impact that could have occurred, but for a long time I was interested in seeing the area for myself. The thought of going alone had always put me off, as well as the radiation, but for some reason I decided to suddenly book a flight to the Ukraine. I looked on sites like skyscanner to find cheap flights to Kiev (Borispol airport). For hotels I searched on booking.com for places to stay in Kiev, as I also wanted to explore the city as well whilst I was over there.
So there I was, two weeks after my spur of the moment decision, stood outside of Borispol airport in the Ukraine on my own, at 2am trying to find a taxi to the hotel. After finally getting to the hotel I managed a few hours sleep before meeting with the small tour group for the long drive north to the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. Tour groups are the safest option when going to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone which is relatively safe, as the guides know where the areas of high radiation are and avoid it. If you choose to go illegally then you may be in danger of going through pockets of forest that are very high in radiation - as the only way to get in without being caught by the checkpoint guards and police is via a long hard trek through dense forest, which I do not recommend - and even then you might still get caught and escorted from the area.
After going through the various security check points along the road, I finally arrived in Chernobyl town, where I dropped my bags off before exploring the area. I decided to go for the most authentic soviet built hotel out of the ones on offer, because it helped give a true sense of what it was like back in the 80's to stay in the area. The Pripyat Hotel is the is actually in Chernobyl town and is the best of the two available in the vicinity for the pure feeling of being in the era just before the disaster. Beware that if you stay here that you might not get hot water in your (pretty grim) bathroom! I was prepared for this and took baby wipes with me and freshened up with those. I also stayed at the Desyatka Hotel on my second visit, which is slightly more modern and with shared bathrooms but it just didn't feel the same. There is a third option which is a modern cottage which lies outside of the area - so if you are posh, or just don't want to stay in an authentically grim, communist soviet style hotel you can stay at the Cottage "Chernobyl Hotel". I haven't stayed at this one so I can't really let you know what it is like, but from pictures online, it seems quite modern compared to the standards of the hotels I have mentioned.
Arriving in the Pripyat area which was once a busy city where life suddenly stopped 30 years ago was a surreal experience. The whole area was engulfed in vegetation, hiding many of the dilapidated buildings from view. Upon closer inspection I could see how degraded the buildings had become. One of the schools had partially collapsed meaning there was no safe access, whilst another had severe water damage which had caused the floorboards to rot, meaning there was some difficulty accessing certain areas in the building. It was obvious that 30 years of neglect and looting had taken its toll on the city, and I wondered how long it would be before tourists would no longer be able visit the area at all.
I visited a number of buildings in the area, many had been looted and were now just empty shells, some places still held an echo of the past; a shelf of toys covered in dust and debris at the kindergarten, and a sea of discarded gas masks at the middle school reminded me that this area was once a vibrant and well-loved place that was suddenly left abandoned, empty and cut off from humanity because of a devastating accident that shook not only the Ukraine, but the world.
Another place in the exclusion zone I recommend you visit is the Duga Radar. The Duga was a radar system was used as part of the Soviet ABM early-warning network. The Duga had the capability to provide early warnings of a rocket launch, which would give the soviet defenses time to study the attack and plan a response. The system operated from July 1976 to December 1989. In July 1976, shortwave radios around the world started picking up signals in the 4 to 30 MHz range, signals that were so powerful that even commercial airliners and telephone circuits in Europe could pick them up, resulting in difficulties in communication. It resembled the sound of a woodpecker, giving the Duga the nickname of ‘The Russian Woodpecker’. This thing is ginormous and pretty awe inspiring - there are also some conspiracy theories that the Chernobyl disaster was caused on purpose to hide the fact that this expensive piece of tech didn't actually work and was a massive waste of money. But like I said, conspiracy theory and I doubt any real evidence will come out to support it. Anyway here is a picture of me at the Duga site, I am about half way down the radar so you can see just how massive it is!
Another strange thing to experience is the radiation testers. For some reason I always got slightly nervous of these things, worried that the alarms would go off when I passed through, but non of them ever did from any of the trips I made out there. The tour guides tell you horror stories of people having their shoes confiscated because they had high levels of radiation due to walking somewhere highly radioactive, but I am not sure how true that is because I did a hell of a lot of exploring when out there and never got caught out. Below is an image of the dreaded machines!
A word of warning if you are visiting in winter: Chernobyl can be VERY cold! so be prepared with some decent clothing and gloves I would recommend something from North Face if you have the money, as it will keep you warm and as well as that - it will last you a good while as it's a quality brand. Another top tip is to take spare batteries with you for your camera (if you are taking a camera) because you will probably go snap happy and photograph everything and anything!! If you are taking alot of camera gear with you then I would recommend a camera backpack. I used my Lowepro Fastpack 350 Quick Access Backpack as it gave me easy access to my camera and lenses when I needed them. As well as that, alot of the buildings are quite dark inside so you are probably best off taking a light weight but quality tripod from a brand like Vanguard or Manfrotto or an external flash with you to help get the shots you want.
I am also going to shamelessly plug my Chernobyl photo book here as well. Its all black and white photos of the area and many of the internal and external buildings which you can get right HERE
If you are interested in visiting this surreal place, flights and hotels to Kiev in the Ukraine can be found on the links below:
Flights, Hotels, Tours and general Information - just click on a banner to go to their site
Even more incredible and exciting excursions can be found on Urban Adventures
Lonely Planet has great PDF & physical books that give you fantastic hints and tips on many destinations
Booking.com is great for finding cheap hotels anywhere around the world!
If you're looking for some original adventures, check out what G Adventures have to offer
Titan travel have some fantastic packages for group and solo travelers