The Eastern European country of Ukraine has been in the news a lot lately due to the war raging between Ukraine and Russia. However, few really know that much about Ukraine. Known as “the breadbasket of Europe,” Ukraine is a beautiful country of rolling hills, large farms, and beautiful cities. From 2011 to 2013, I lived in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Ukraine’s distinctive culture and interesting sights always impressed me.
One of the more unique sights within Kiev is the ghost town of Pripyat—the infamous town near the nuclear power-plant Chernobyl. On April 26, 1986, during a failed safety test of the nuclear power plant, one of the five Chernobyl reactors exploded and began spewing radioactive material into the air. The explosion and ensuing fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western USSR and Europe. It is widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster). The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles, crippling the Soviet economy (at that time the exchange rate was about one rubles to one US dollar). The explosion and resulting radiation poisoning killed thirty-one people. However, the after effects, including a massive radioactive cloud making its way into nearby Belarus, are directly tied to hundreds of deaths and birth defects across Ukraine and the rest of Europe. The radiation was so intense that radiation levels spiked in Paris, France, over 1400 miles away. The soviet government immediately evacuated all the residents of Pripyat. The residents were allowed to take with them only a small amount of belongings. Within three days, the town with a population of over 400,00 people, was completely empty. Pripyat has been frozen in time ever since. The calendars in Pripyat will always read April 29, 1986.
In 2012, a group of friends and I visited Chernobyl and the nearby town of Prypyat. Both of these areas lay within the 30 kilometer “exclusion zone” about 150 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. I learned of the opportunity to visit Kiev from an extreme tourism website. After making arrangements with a local tour agency in Kiev, which included obtaining a special pass from the Ukrainian government to enter the exclusion zone, we boarded a small van which took us from Kiev to Chernobyl. The travel document was important because it gave us access through two gates manned by Ukrainian soldiers with Kalashnikovs. The first gate gave us access to the exclusion zone. After driving through abandoned villages overgrown with trees, we passed a second gate through which lay the exploded reactor and Pripyat.
Our guide handed each one of us a small, portable Geiger counter, so we could monitor our the level of the surrounding radiation. The images we encountered at Chernobyl and Pripyat were stunning. Prypyat was especially haunting. Decaying, crumbling buildings held remains of a once vibrant town decimated by a horrible tragedy. Room after room of abandoned gas masks displayed the futile efforts of an overstretched government attempting to help its citizens avoid a painful demise.
At the center of the town, we were able to visit Pripyat’s abandoned amusement park. The town built the park in 1986 and planned to open it in celebration of May Day, 1986. The explosion on April 26, five days before the planned opening, doomed their plans. To this very day, no one has ever ridden on any of its rides. The abandoned, decaying Ferris wheel has become the iconic image of the Chernobyl disaster.
At the end of the tour, after the required radiation check before passing through the inner gate, we made our way back to Kiev. It was an amazing and exciting trip. Should you find yourself in Kiev and wanting a little excitement, make the trip to Chernobly for a unique experience.