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Happy Greetings from Chernobyl

Long ignored by the tourism industry, this hotspot is glowing with a new influx of hardy travellers.

Disaster tourism 20 years after the occurrence: Three Americans, four Ukrainians, and I leave Kiev in a small white van. We’re headed for the 30-kilometre zone surrounding the former nuclear power plant of Chernobyl. Our local guide works for the Ministry of Disasters. A serious, squarely-built man with a moustache, he wears army fatigues and trainers. He smells of sweat and doesn‘t like questions until he’s finished talking. We’re seated in his cheerless office with an old bakelite telephone and yellowing wallpaper, listening to a one hour monologue about the biggest disaster regarding a nuclear power plant ever, the infamous Chernobyl meltdown on April 26th, 1986.

After this introduction, our guide takes us to the abandoned city of Pripyat. It was built in the early 1970s as a Soviet model-city where life was good. A giant Ferris wheel still stands, a teddy bear lying in front of the dilapidated ticket booth. We enter an apartment block. Signs of looting are everywhere; even the kitchen tiles have been removed. In the late eighties, radioactive furniture from places like Pripyat was sold on Ukraine’s black markets. It’s likely that, up to this day, thousands of people are cooking on extremely radioactive stoves or resting their behinds on a highly radiating couch.

What surprises me about ‘the zone‘ is the overwhelming presence of nature. In the place of former Ukrainian potato and cabbage patches, I see nothing but meadows and young forest. A dead silence reigns, even birdsong is absent. All buildings have been abandoned and are derelict. At the entrance of an empty apartment building, a mature tree has worked itself through the asphalt pavement. My Geiger counter starts clicking alarmingly as I hold it over the moss covering large patches of asphalt and concrete. Moss seemingly retains a lot of radiation.

Several days after the disaster, more then 200.000 people were evacuated from the area around Chernobyl. At the time, they were told they would come back within a few days. Some never returned, others only after 18 years. At the moment, around 2000 people live in the polluted villages within the 30-kilometre zone. They have returned because of homesickness for their fields and their spacious farmhouses. Mostly old people have chosen to return. They say they don’t mind the radiation and that whatever time they have left on this earth, they’d like to spend at home.

After our visit to Pripyat, the van takes us to the power plant. The melted reactor number 4 is packed into a concrete sarcophagus hastily built after the disaster. My Geiger counter clicks like never before this close to the ill-fated spot and our guide restricts our stay to five minutes. At the end of the tour, we’re offered a hot lunch in the office of the Ministry of Disasters. A grumpy woman brings us four courses of chicken soup, cold meats, mashed potatoes, cabbage salad and pudding. The Americans in our company play with the food on their plate, ashamed. They are afraid the food is contaminated, but my appetite is larger than my anxiety.

I‘ve been to Chernobyl. At the last checkpoint, we have to pass through a steel contraption that reminds me of the device that created the Frankenstein monster. Here we have to get tested on the radioactivity we’ve accumulated. Everything seems to be within the normal range. A guard holds a special Geiger counter to the tires of our bus: not contaminated. We head back to Kiev and a mere kilometre beyond the checkpoint, I see a babushka bend over her potato patch. By the side of the road, women sit on stools, selling buckets of freshly picked blueberries and raspberries. What is the difference in regard to radiation levels between this place and the securely locked and controlled 30-kilometre zone? No one can answer that question.

Travel information:

- In Kiev, many organisations arrange guided tours to the 30-kilometre zone around Chernobyl. The cost decreases with the number of people in your group. For one person, a trip costs around 300 US dollars, for six people the price goes down to around 100 US dollars each.

- One must book a tour to Chernobyl approximately one week ahead due to the official permissions required from the authorities.

- The controlled 30-kilometre zone is a two hour drive from the capital Kiev.

Author: Florence Tonk

Photo: Martijn de Vries

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