Chernobyl: Dark tourism at its most radioactive

Sure, heading to the site of the most devastating nuclear disaster in history doesn’t quite have  any charm to it, but there’s plenty of reasons why you should…

To get to Chernobyl there’s basically only one way to do it, and that’s to take a day trip from Kiev. Of course, you can also take a two-day tour or a three-day tour, which involves staying in the exclusion zone, depending on just how much radioactivity you’d like to consume (we kid, we kid… it’s all completely safe…).

SOLOEAST TOURS seems to be the cheapest tour we could find, offering a full day including lunch for $79USD. They were also incidentally the ones to have championed Chernobyl as a tourist destination, starting the trend way back in 1999. 

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Now, as a budget backpacker – I’m fairly well used to expecting quite the compromise on quality when immediately going for the cheap option. Luckily, SoloEast were there to buck that trend. The company’s minivan is modern and plush (USB charging points and video screens even!), the guide is fantastic and the lunch is delicious. You’re not missing out here.

Chernobyl
Power plant and memorial

Things to note:

*BEST TIME TO VISIT: If you’re up for wandering around in single digit temperatures you should give winter a go. There’s something about Chernobyl in winter – blanketed in snow and icy, it’s even more eerie than it usually is.

*DRESS WARMLY: Especially if you’re heading out in winter. You spend a lot of time outside looking around, especially if your permits haven’t turned up. 

*TAKE SNACKS: Breakfast isn’t provided and lunch isn’t usually served until 1pm or so, so it pays to have things like water and snacks on hand for when you get peckish. Your van will make at least one stop for you to fill up your packs.

*REMEMBER YOUR PASSPORT: You need this at the entrance to each exclusion zone, and you simply will not be allowed in if you don’t have it.

How your day will generally go:

8/9am: Meet the rest of the tour and depart from Kiev, coffee in tow. You won’t be provided breakfast, so make sure you’ve eaten. However, you will stop on the outskirts of Kiev to fuel up and to load up on snacks.

10am ish: This is about the time you should reach border control to the exclusion zone.  Have your passport handy. However, if you’re like us and the police have not yet arrived with your paperwork (ours were apparently having a late brunch that day), then you’ll be forced to wait in the van in the cold for about an hour before they turn up to let you in. There’s not much to do at the border, but if you’re in to gimmicky tourist stalls with plenty of yellow radioactive sign-branded merchandise then you’re in luck.

11am to 12pm: You’ll stop at a few points of interest in the 30km exclusion zone, and take a drive around the town of Chernobyl itself. 

12pm ish: Lunch is served in Chernobyl town. Expect a heaping mound of pork steak and chips (amazing), stale bread (less amazing) and some water. There’s tea and coffee if you want to buy it.

1pm to 5pm:

  • Enter the 10km exclusion zone, which requires another passport check.
  • Abandoned kindergarten and a radioactive hotspot. You’ll be allowed to stop and wander around a kindergarten that was evacuated during the meltdown.
  • Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Your van will stop on the road to get a panoramic view of the dome encasing the power plant, and you’ll get a general overview of the area around it.
  • Power Plant stop #2: A close up right beside the plant, where you can view the memorial and generally act badass.
  • Pripyat: Finally, before stopping briefly near the entrance of the town you’ll enter Pripyat , where the van will drop you in the town centre and you’ll head out for a couple of hours with your guide. Your guide will point out several points of interest: abandoned supermarkets, town hall, sports stadiums and – the pis-de-resistance – the famed yellow Ferris Wheel. If you’re lucky – you’ll then get to go and find the town swimming pool, which is apparently quite the big deal as it was in some form of video game….?! (Calm down plebs, I know what Call of Duty is…)

5pm: You’ll head back for Kiev – but not before a couple of stops at the border controls to check your radioactivity levels. Relax, we haven’t seen anyone fail (yet). 

Visas to get into Ukraine:

New Zealanders (and several other nationalities) can get a visa on arrival at Kiev Boryspil International Airport, Odessa International Airport and Odessa Marine Trade Port – but it will cost you. A 15-day tourist visa is a pricey US$100, UAH2550, or NZ$136. There’s also the small fact that you never quite know when the person supposed to be manning that desk will actually be there. For example, my plane arrived at about 8am, and the person handling visas didn’t turn up until about 10am.

They’ll then rush you through applying for the visa on one of their computers (they’ll also ask you for medical insurance and will take your photo) and hurry you out the other side. One particularly vile woman might also start whacking you on the arm when you can’t find your credit card in your purse fast enough. Then, you might say “That’s not very nice. You’re not making me want to ever come back here,” and another airport employee sitting out the back might yell over the divider “Good! We don’t want you to come back – get out of Ukraine!!”, without a hint of humour in his voice. I tell ya, the first impressions of this place ain’t great.

Be sure to carry the money for the visa in cash – they do have a credit card machine out the back, but the disapproving looks and annoyance of your incompetence is just not worth it.

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