Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl is the hottest thing on TV right now - and looks set to destroy anything that goes near it next awards season. But did you know that Chernobyl is somewhere that you, yes, you dear reader, can visit with relative ease?
That’s right: who doesn’t watch an ultra-grim real life drama about a horrifying tragedy and head over to Google Maps to figure out how to get there? Don’t worry, you’re not alone - apparently since the show aired, tourism is reportedly already up 40 per cent.
In all seriousness though, Chernobyl is a fascinating place. It is both breathtaking and moving to see both the site of such a tragedy and disaster - and how humans have worked (sometimes at the cost of their own lives) to contain the damage they have caused since.
And here’s the surprising thing: you don’t have to be too much of an adventurous traveller in order to visit and learn more for yourself. I visited last year; yes, it is a step up from going to the beach, but it's not as tricky as you might expect. So I thought I’d share my experience of the actual mechanics of visiting.
Chernobyl is a couple of hours outside of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, so getting there is easy. Kyiv is a normal European city, and you can fly from Heathrow on British Airways. Yes, Ukraine is technically still at war with Russia-backed separatists in the East of the country, but the new status quo has been pretty stable for a few years now, so it doesn’t feel like entering a war zone. The only real sign of it in Kyiv is a surprising number of people dressed in camouflage uniforms.
To get to Chernobyl itself, you need to go as part of an organised tour group. I went with Solo East Tours. Book in advance. On the day itself they’ll pick you up in a minibus in Maidan Square - right in the middle of Kyiv. It’s a long day - my tour was about 12 hours from pick up to drop off, so be prepared - take drinks, snacks and so on.
On the way to the 30 mile Chernobyl exclusion zone, the tour guide will play a number of documentaries on the bus to give you some background on the Chernobyl plant and how the explosion happened.
You’ll know you’ve arrived at the exclusion zone when you get to the first military checkpoint. Access to the zone is restricted, so you need to be a on a pre-approved list that your tour guide has submitted, and you will need to be ticked off before you can get back on board the bus.
What Do You See?
Now, the most important question: What do you actually get to see? My tour took me to the following places:
An abandoned nursery.
An abandoned hall.
The power plant, covered by the new sarcophagus.
Pripyat, the major city in the Chernobyl area.
The famous ferris wheel.
An abandoned school in Pripyat.
A massive radar array.
And finally, this.
The Solo East tour also provided lunch at a hotel within the exclusion zone (!). Don’t worry, food is brought in from the outside.
Other Top Tips
Data SIM cards are super cheap in Ukraine, so make sure to get one while you are there. Inexplicably, almost the entire exclusion zone has 4G, meaning you can post photos straight to Instagram while still being very mildly irradiated.
While in Kyiv, make sure you also visit former President Victor Yanukovych’s former mansion, which has since been dubbed a “Museum of Corruption”. See the collection of classic cars, chandeliers and John Lennon piano that he bought instead of spending it on the people of Ukraine.
The WWII museum is also a must-visit - not only does it have an enormous statue on top, but you can see also experience the unusual spectacle of a museum exhibition dedicated to a war that is still on-going. There are captured tanks outside, and captured vehicles and other paraphernalia from the conflict in the East inside. The Chernobyl museum, which is separate, is also an interesting place to visit if you want some extra context.
Oh, and my partner and I discovered that Kyiv was surprisingly good for vegetarian food.
All images: James O'Malley