Not all adventures are beautiful. Sometimes the most interesting places are dark, haunted, stained by history and incident. In this first of our series on the Dark Tourist Trail we journey to Chernobyl, to trace the path of a very modern tragedy.
Drive north from Kiev for a few hours and you enter an apocalypse. There, just 100km away from modern Ukrainian life, lies Chernobyl. It offers a moment caught in time. Brutalist Soviet architecture looks down on empty streets. Slogans and signage still shout out a message that history has left behind. An unused fairground creaks in the wind. Hospitals and schools remain as they were on their last day in service.
This is the site of the world's worst nuclear accident. On April 26th, 1986 the #4 nuclear reactor in Chernobyl power plant exploded. 31 technicians on site were given lethal doses of radiation. Five million people were exposed to harmful levels of radiation in the Ukraine and the surrounding areas. The radioactive spread was so vast that millions of sheep were quarantined in the UK – a restriction maintained until 2012.
Chernobyl, and the nearby city of Pripyat have been bywords for disaster for nearly 30 years. Of the 50,000 citizens evacuated from the area, only a few hundred have returned to live in a place still considered uninhabitable. The 'exclusion zone' that surrounds the area extends for 1000 square miles. This is a dark corner of the world.
Yet interest remains. Over the years a small tourist trade has quietly flourished, running guerilla tours into the Chernobyl area. Now, with the huge popularity of HBO's television show, interest is booming. Tour organisers have reported a 30% increase in bookings. Flights from the UK to Kiev have risen dramatically in price and, controversially, influencers are flocking to the site for the newest must-have Instagram shot.
So, what does a trip to Chernobyl entail? What can you see? Most importantly, is it safe?
All tours begin in Kiev, where you will be picked up and driven into the Exclusion Zone. A number of tour operators offer a range of excursions, ranging from 1-day visits to 2- or more day explorations. Prices range from around $100 to $400 per person and include accommodation and food. Many tour operators offer bespoke trips but here the prices escalate quickly. Regardless of duration, tours focus on two key sites: Pripyat and the power plant itself.
Pripyat was evacuated the day after the explosion, leaving a time capsule of the late Cold War era. Visits offer the chance to see what Soviet life was like three decades ago. This museum-like experience is made more haunting, however, by the obvious emptiness of the site.
The city's most iconic landmark is the abandoned amusement park. It was due to open on May 1st, 1986, only a few days after the reactor exploded. The ferris wheel has become one of the most photographed sights in the city, an unofficial symbol of the disaster, and a poignant reminder that this was a city occupied by families and children. The classroom and municipal building reinforce the human cost of the tragedy. Books and paperwork lie open on desks; blackboards are still scrawled with the chalk of unfinished lessons.
From there most tours make the short journey to the power station itself. Much of the complex remains to be explored, including the control rooms in Reactor #3.
Here you confront the ethical complexity of dark tourism. One tour operator mentions on their itinerary that "you will be able to touch the famous AZ5 button, which was pushed too late by the operators of Reactor 4!"
Visiting a site of tragedy can be illuminating without exploiting the memory of what happened. It is a fine line to tread, however and there is a queasiness to this type of macabre performance. Some may consider it a trivialisation too far.
The same could be said of the final part of the tour, if it wasn't so necessary and authentic. Before you leave the site you will pass through a dosimetric control, or radiation detector. This is not a piece of theatre. It is a real test. You wait in the scanner, hoping for the light to turn green, and perhaps considering whether the risk taken has been worth it.
This leads to the final and most crucial question: is it safe to visit Chernobyl?
Broadly, yes. The site is still radioactive, some parts highly so, but the tours stick closely to areas that can be visited safely. You will be tested for radiation levels at least twice per day and your group will carry Geiger counters at all times. Some consider these to be theatrical props, but they build an the eerie feeling of vulnerability.
Risk depends on how long you spend there. The exclusion zone is considered to be unsafe for human habitation and will be so for thousands of years. Visiting the site briefly, for a single or multiple day trip will only give you very low-level doses of radiation – roughly the same amount you would get from flying in an airplane.
That said, maybe the frisson of anxiety makes dark tourism worthwhile. The threat to tourists is a dim echo of that faced by the people who lived and worked in the area. But it is hopefully enough to ensure that Chernobyl remains a potent symbol of genuine tragedy rather than a macabre theme-park or the background for an exotic selfie.
What do you think about the issue of dark tourism? Would you visit Chernobyl? Where else have you been on the Dark Tourist Trail? Let us know in the comments.