Kiev (Ukraine), 03.11.2013
After a few hours sleep I woke up for a tour of Chernobyl. I had read about visiting the place of the worst nuclear disaster ever many months ago in Der Spiegel and wanted to see it. I still remember hearing the news when I was a kid on the way to school. We couldn’t drink milk and eat vegetables for weeks at the time and nobody knew what exactly had happened. The incident made me read books about nuclear meltdown and ever since I have developed a lot of respect for anything nuclear. It seemed a technology hard to grasp with common measures for me at the time. So here it was, few km from Kiev, and at 09:00 I met the tour bus at Maidan square.
I drove by car, following the bus, first through lovely Kiev in the morning sun. On the way I got stopped by police asking me if I had drunken alcohol. Spontaneously I replied “no, just coffee” pointing at the coffee to go cup in my car. The officer smiled (yes, they also can smile sometimes!!) and let me go. 115km from downtown Kiev the checkpoint to the 30km restricted Exclusion Zone barred the road. I parked the car and joined the group in the bus, past the passport control we started our tour. The guide worked for a government office if I understood correctly, and explained us the various sites we saw. He had several contamination meters with him and people checked radiation levels as we drove through forests into Chernobyl town, or rather ghost town. There were only some workers for the cleanup operations left. They controlled the area, managed decontamination efforts and repaired what was needed. We saw a school with furniture, books, toys still scattered on the ground, a WWII memorial in front of it; remote controlled machines used in the cleanup; a memorial to all evacuated towns in the area (and mostly died from the effects of radiation subsequently); abandoned streets with buildings falling to pieces, regained by nature. The next stop was the reactor itself. It was completely silent in the bus as we approached the complex. First reactors 5 and 6 appeared, who were never completed. They stood there as they were left the day of the disaster. We were told not to leave the tarred road and where to go and where not. Radiation levels varied quite significantly. Approaching the reactor we were not allowed to take pictures in some spots. We got close to the exploded reactor at a few hundred meters distance. Just outside of it is a memorial, from where we took pictures as the guide explained us the difficulties in dismantling the reactor and its sarcophagus and building a new one for it. In all this he repeatedly explained that the radiation in the end was not as bad, and that any transatlantic flight or X-ray at a doctor would be more dangerous.
After the reactor we visited Pripjat, formerly a town of 15.000 inhabitants working at the power plants and supporting operations. As the guide said, this was the only place on earth from where Chernobyl could be perceived as clean and uncontaminated. The town was just a few km from the reactor, before entering it we had to pass a bridge where suddenly the contamination meters started beeping like crazy. The reactor was within direct sight and the first cloud after the explosion had gone right over the bridge where people were standing, trying to see what had happened at the power plant. Pripjat was evacuated the day of the disaster and has been rotting ever since. 27 years of abandonment had seen nature taking over the streets, buildings, squares. Houses were falling apart, we visited several of them, a hotel, restaurant, supermarket. For Soviet standards this had been a luxury town for privileged engineers. There also was a river boat station to take a ferry to Kiev, with a cafe and terrace on a beautiful lake, the counters, refrigeration room, tables still standing there abandoned. In a school we could see into classrooms with tables and books still there, propaganda posters on the walls, writing on blackboards. People must have left on the spot, in the middle of daily activities. Time had stood still here from 1986. We also visited the amusement park, that was scheduled to open just a few days after the disaster. Never used, the car scooter and giant wheel stood there, rotting. A ghost town!
From there we drove back, visiting a huge military complex with an installation to detect American missiles. 140m high, the metal poles holding a huge net stood in the forest, abandoned like the buildings around them. Also here I felt entering a place of another era, where nuclear war, missile attacks, mutual annihilation were daily threats. Propaganda on the walls glorified the anti fascist heroes of WWII. We then left for a late lunch in a canteen in Chernobyl, before leaving the restricted area. We had to pass a contamination scanner at the checkpoint. Then I got back into my car and drove back to Kiev. Entering the city, I went to search a laundry that I didn’t find. In the meantime I toured Kiev, an interesting mix of baroque and neoclassic buildings with a Soviet extension around it. For over an hour I drove around, before reaching the hotel. As I searched for a restaurant for the evening I fell asleep, exhausted from the previous night and the many impressions of the day.
– Km driven: 243
– Hrs on the road: 9h
– Diesel l/100km: 8,7