Today’s guest post is from Ele Pranaityte, a solo female travel blogger and tour guide residing in Vilnius, Lithuania.
It took me about a fortnight to start finding the words to describe my experience of the tour that I took to Chernobyl on November 1-4, 2012. It’s difficult to describe your experience when you literally “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
What is Chernobyl?
First of all, I think it’s useful to begin with some background information. The unfortunate reactor that blew up in 1986 is located in the town of Prypiat, founded in 1970 to house the workers of the nuclear power plant. Chernobyl is another town, located about 30 km away from Prypiat. Both Prypiat and Chernobyl, and more than 90 villages are in the Zone of Exclusion and were evacuated due to the accident that occurred during a non-routine test operation.
But what scares me most is the fact that there were two nuclear power plants in the USSR with the same reactor and the test could have been done in Ignalina town in Lithuania – my country! The plant was finally closed down in 2000 and construction of a second sarcophagus that will encase the plant (the first one is crumbling) will commence in 2015-2016.
I am not a pioneer?!
When I booked the trip, I thought it was something out of the mainstream. I was sure that it was going to be a unique experience. Imagine my disappointment when I started researching and found out that not only am I NOT a pioneer, but I am not even close to the first one hundred.
There was a short ban on trips to Chernobyl, which has now been lifted but you are only allowed 3-4 hours in the Zone of Exclusion with a travel agency. People are no longer allowed inside the buildings because they are not considered to be safe – there was a case reported when a piece of ceiling fell on tourists.
Currently there are three ways to get there:
1. By reaching Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, and booking a tour with a local agency
2. By private arrangement like I did
3. By becoming a so-called “stalker” and walking 40 km a day, using GPS and avoiding the police, which is illegal
If anything, wildlife in the area is thriving. I saw stray dogs and cats, a few birds (they are the most susceptible to radiation), and wild deer. Giant catfish are fed bread by tourists and are the result not of radioactivity, but of a population that lives life free from fishermen. Rumour has it that they might introduce a watch tower for animal observation at night.
The most interesting wildlife for me were the Przewalski’s horses. The last free herd was seen in 1967 and the last free horse in 1969. In 1996 sixteen horses were released in Mongolia and bred so well that their status went from “extinct in nature” to “rare.” There are about 1500 horses in the world at the moment and about 150 of them live in Chernobyl’s Zone of Exclusion. We only saw them from a great distance, unfortunately, because they are easily spooked.
Fact or fiction?
While I was devouring other people’s accounts of their visits to the Zone of Exclusion, I came across a very interesting article. It had a photo of a magazine with an mp3 player on the cover. Either the Soviet Union was very advanced for its time or somebody wasn’t careful with their litter.
This was what made me furious – people not only visit this place as tourists but also leave their junk there. We did see children’s toys scattered around but not many, so I can’t draw any conclusions about them being staged, but bottles of Sprite and beer and empty packets of cigarettes left by visitors diminished the effect of the place.
Although there are about 4,000 people currently living in Chernobyl, we didn’t see any people except for one group of workers leaving the canteen.
But we had a chance to meet Maria and Ivan, who have been living in their village all their lives. Their village was washed well and people were allowed to come back. Now they are two of five residents in the village. They say they are satisfied with life, they have enough of everything, there’s a shop on wheels that comes every week and the ambulance can arrive in a couple of minutes. The only problem is that wolves have made a deer graveyard nearby.
The appearance of ghost town Prypiat and Chernobyl doesn’t differ much from any other abandoned town you might find in another country. It’s information that makes the location spooky: there will be people (tourists, workers…) but no child will ever play here. There are cemeteries that nobody will light a candle in.
We stayed at the Chernobyl InterInform Agency Hotel, which is located in Chernobyl. There is a curfew after 8 p.m. and any outing (sightseeing or food) is with your guide only. I did drink water from the hotel tap and showered-they have separate water provisions for this but drinking from natural sources .i.e. lakes and rivers is prohibited. There is a small shop for food and other items like a few fridge magnets or a T-shirt with a Chernobyl logo.
Visitors are advised to wear clothes that cover their arms and legs, closed footwear (no sandals) and head covering. Personally I was wearing a waterproof rain suit consisting of long trousers and a jacket with a hood, as well as rubber boots. It’s a sound choice in case it rains and also because some places are dripping with water.
I paid €250 for the trip (a return trip of 48 hours on a bus in total, accommodation for 1 night, full board, guide, permits). It’s advisable to carry cash in the local currency for your personal needs and in case the driver gets a speeding fine, which can, unfortunately, be just an example of road patrol corruption.
I joined this privately arranged tour from Vilnius (currently, no other travel agency offers it) via this Lithuanian site. There are also a few agencies running the tour from Kiev (but only for 3-4 hours, usually).