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Bucket list travel: Visit Kyiv and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

by Jun 1, 2020Ukraine

Kyiv UFO Building Cover

Traveling to tour the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is on a lot of travel bucket lists these days. That’s where the nuclear plant exploded in 1986. I had the chance to visit Kyiv and the Chernobyl area in Ukraine on a winter photography trip.

Traveling to remote places and far-flung destinations is what we do – preferably at little off the beaten tourist track. When I had the opportunity to go to the Ukraine recently, including four full days traveling in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and a few days to visit Kyiv, I jumped at it. It seemed like a great less-traveled adventure.

Apparently, though, since the 2019 HBO Chernobyl mini-series aired about the 1986 nuclear disaster, tourism there had shot through the roof (up at least 30 percent) and friends wanted to know if that was why I was going. Well, no, not really…. I hadn’t even been aware of the highly touted show and never watched it; I have just always been fascinated with Eastern European cultures and the drama that unfolded in Chernobyl so many decades ago.

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Pribyat School Day Care

A day care center in the city of Pribyat in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has rubbish and dolls scattered about with collapsing shelves and the remains of rotten mattresses.

People also wanted to know if I had any concerns about lingering radioactivity in Chernobyl. Hadn’t entered my mind. You stay where it’s safe, don’t sit down, and don’t touch things. Plus, in the winter, everything would be covered by snow. On the one hand, I was thrilled about the opportunity to take photos of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with the eeriness of a winter backdrop; on the other hand, I was a bit freaked out about spending that much time in that kind of cold trying to operate a camera and stay warm. I packed up my wool layers (planning to layer as I had for our Antarctica trip two years prior) and acquired additional flip-top gloves, heat packs and heated over-gloves. Turns out it was a very mild winter (by Ukrainian standards) and there was no snow when we were there.)

Visit Kyiv – three days not enough

Over three days in Kyiv (or Kiev), I had a chance to explore the underground tunnels, Soviet architecture and mosaics, and an old market that had operated in the same location for some 600 years. Kyiv is highly worthy of much more time with its churches, monuments, greenways and the beautiful Dnieper River snaking through town. The lead photo is of the so-called UFO Building in Kyiv, a former library that is embattled since some want to tear down the now-closed building.

Visit Kyiv Underground Silhouette

Lowering yourself into a manhole down into Kyiv’s extensive underground tunnel system was an eerie experience — and only done with guides to be safe.

Despite the Ukrainian city’s attraction, traveling to Chernobyl was the focus of my trip. I had already crammed many miles of walking and as many sights as I could into three days in Kyiv, and I knew I would be back.

Kyiv Train Blur Street Art

A graffiti-covered metro train zips across the Dnieper River from the Dnipro Station with a young man who just disembarked stopping to check his messages.

Heading to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Now, however, it was time to head out to Chernobyl, about two hours away from Kyiv. Most travelers spend a quick day in Chernobyl, being whisked from mandatory tourist photo opp to mandatory tourist stop in the abandoned zone, traveling to and from Kyiv, with the entire trip done in about 12 hours. My group was going to have nearly four days and three full nights in an area where the worst nuclear accident in the world occurred in 1986 when Reactor 4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) exploded.

Chernobyl Power Plant Memorial

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant administration building still operates with a staff just a fraction of what it had then. In front of the ChNPP is a memorial to those who died in the first response to the nuclear disaster.

In the Chernobyl area (also called the “Zone of Alienation”), you are not officially SUPPOSED to go into any buildings, but with the right … ummm … “gift” for security personnel, a knowledgeable guide, and some great precaution, you do sometimes just happen into schools, childcare centers, unfinished reactor cooling towers, and even the infamous hospital in Pripyat. Pripyat is the modern town that was built for employees of the ChNPP and their families, and it is where the hospital is located where the first responders and personnel were first taken after the accident – and, heads up, their radioactivity-drenched clothing and helmets are still entombed deep in the barricaded hospital basement.

Pribyat Sad Puppy

The stray dogs and their puppies are surprisingly loving, following visitors for treats and a few scratches behind the ears. But they live a hard life and die young.

Chernobyl’s stray dogs, radioactivity and forest fires

The many dogs still living around the zone were our only companions (they are in fact the descendants of the pets who escaped being shot, which was done because of a fear the dogs would spread radioactivity in their fur). The dogs and puppies are all so lovable and seem to just crave human attention, following you around wherever you go – although you are warned not to pet them. One puppy stuck with me the entire time I was shooting in the abandoned school and library. You can help the dogs by supporting the non-profit Clean Futures Fund “Dogs of Chernobyl” campaign co-founded by Lucas Hixson, known as “That Chernobyl Guy” on Instagram.

Now, to answer in more detail the question everybody asks about concern about danger: There really aren’t any worries about radioactivity. Everybody wears personal measurement devices, called dosimeters, and you listen to guides about where you should not be. Plus, you don’t go slogging through still-contaminated forests, rivers and swamps; you avoid the occasional “hot spot” where a guide’s radioactivity monitoring device might go beeping nuts; and you don’t put things on the ground. Wait, what about tripods? As one guide told me in the hospital when I asked about tripods, “Just don’t put it on any bandages.” Because, yes, there is an occasional 34-year-old bandage in one corner or another. Or so we were told.

Pribyat Amusement Park Think Tank Pack

On the trip, I used a Think Tank new Retrospective backpack, which you can swing around to access gear without putting it down — as I did here to change cameras at the never-operated Pripyat amusement park’s bumper car attraction.

Forest fires in Chernobyl are of course still a huge concern. They happen regularly, although the one that ravaged more than 116,000 acres in April 2020 raised concerns the remains of the city of Pripyat, the nearby Chernobyl town, and many of the historic artifacts would be burned and disappear forever. The bigger concern is that fire and smoke also raise radioactivity levels by disturbing particles on the ground which are then carried far and wide, including to the Kyiv metropolitan area. Indeed, some historic structures were lost, but firefighters stopped the blaze on the outskirts of Pripyat, saving the town’s remains and the Chernobyl plant, which still has a skeleton crew.

Grasping the impact of the Chernobyl disaster on a tour

Although four days and three nights in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is three times more than most people, it still didn’t seem like enough to truly understand and to grasp the essence of nature taking over what was once a thriving city of 50,000 people. A former stadium looks like a forest. The broad main boulevard is a trail through trees with rusted signs here and there. The floors and walls of once-modern buildings are disintegrating.

Pribyat Before After Cafe

The once-prestigious Pripyat riverside cafe is in ruins. Here, one of our guides holds up a photo showing what it looked like in its heyday in front of the same area in the photo.

As one of our guides said, good thing we are here now because the town won’t be around much longer.

To better enable my ability to access photography equipment without putting down a backpack, Think Tank Photo sent me a new Retrospective Backpack, which I also wrote about for its blog in a shorter version of this story. With it, I could get to my camera, lenses and other photo gear via a back panel, as shown in the photo in the amusement park, above. After all, who wants to put a camera bag down on a radioactive bandage!

Join a Chernobyl Guided Tour

 

HITT me with quick facts and travel tips

Need a place to stay in Kyiv? We recommend the Salute HotelNot only is it centrally located for superb city access by foot but it is also near an historic metro station. Plus, its odd round shape is quirky enough to be cool, and rooms aren’t bad at all. (Ask for one facing north toward the Motherland Statue for amazing night views!)

Where to eat in Kyiv? Aside from the “secret” Ostannya Barykada restaurant, also consider the Syndicate Bar & Grill brewery for freshly grilled food as well as some super awesome ginger tea. Another trendy stop for a change from Ukrainian or Georgian food is the Drunk Cherry at the base of the Andriyivsky Descent for grilled vegies and, get this, really good BBQ ribs, not to mention some scrummy cherry liqueur.

Research your visit to Europe by looking at all the articles and recommendations we have made from personal experience by clicking here. Flights to Kyiv are available from many major European cities and access to town from the airport can be done by taxi for very inexpensive. If you have cell reception, you can use Uber too (see below though).

Need cell phone reception? Although some providers, including mine, said Ukraine was included in its international plan, reception was unavailable. Do yourself a favor and go straight to a Kyivstar (“KИÏBCTAP”) store (there is a major one near Maiden/Independence Square) and buy a flat-rate, all-inclusive SIM card. They are quite cheap and will save the day.

Where to get cash? You can get “Hryvnia” at any number of ATMs but rates fluctuate wildly so do compare. Also, when I was at Hotel Salute, the lobby ATM limited withdrawals to the equivalent of about USD $8! Although prices are low in the Ukraine, that won’t take you too far, so find a bank for ATM withdrawals, although even at a bank, ATM withdrawals will be quite limited. Beware of the little booths or boxes (with a person inside) that are in about every restaurant or store for exchanging money (cash only because USD and EUR are apparently quite in demand there); rates will be less favorable there.

How to visit Chernobyl? Chernobyl and Pribyat are only accessible with guides. You can either go with a group or hire a private guide. Day trips are the most popular, but overnights are also available. Do your research since many unscrupulous tour companies have sprung up since 2019 HBO series aired and popularity surged. My guides were from ChernobylTravel.net and were terrific — ask for Lisa or Kostya. We also recommend Get Your Guide as another trustworthy option.

Here are several guidebooks on Kyiv and Chernobyl we recommend: Lonely Planet Ukraine and Lonely Planet Ukrainian Phrasebook & Dictionary. A few words of Ukrainian (or Russian) come in handy, especially off the tourist beaten path.

Be prepared for anything. When traveling to Ukraine, and especially Chernobyl, things change and anything can happen. Don’t leave home without the right travel insurance. We use Global Rescue for emergency evacuation coverage, advice, and for travel insurance that offers a “cancel for any reason” option. Be sure your trip to Ukraine is covered! 

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