While many men from the west spend their days in Kiev daygaming on Khreshchatyk Street and Shevchenko Park, or popping bottles in some of the city’s highest end clubs—there is a whole separate part of the city that many foreigners never see. And if you venture even further out of the actual city itself, there’s even more eye-opening and unique things to experience.
One of those things is Chernobyl.
Now, many are familiar with Chernobyl from the absolutely epic Call of Duty: Modern Warfare levels. Many who play the game probably aren’t even aware that it’s a real city, with a real dire story to tell. Throughout all my travels, Chernobyl still stands out as one of the most eye-opening and surreal experiences.
With that being said, I’d highly recommend going if you are in Ukraine and have the chance. Here are some random tips, experiences, and thoughts from when I visited Chernobyl (May of 2016).
It’s The September 11th Equivalent, But…
There is a very large difference between the two events. You see, September 11th was horrible, but eventually the country “moved on”, in a way. While certainly the family and friends of those who passed will never have that leave them, on a physical and surface level, things have changed.
The 9/11 Memorial in New York City stands on the former ruins of the two towers. It’s stunning (I’d highly recommend visiting it if you have the chance). Obviously, the new One World Trade Center has been built, and is also stunning.
The point is, the former ruins that devastated America have now been rebuilt into memorials. There at least has been some closure on the tragedy, and they’ve been honored appropriately. However, that’s not the case with Chernobyl.
Chernobyl’s devastation is shoved right in your face. You simply cannot look away. And you know that it will never be improved. There will be no clearing of the debris and construction of a beautiful monument. There will not be a phoenix that rises from the ashes.
It is what it is, and likely will be for a very long time to come.
Ukrainians As Children And Chernobyl
I actually took my Ukrainian girl with me to Chernobyl (you can listen to her on my podcast here). To say she was nervous, shocked, and terrified out of her mind would be an understatement.
To compare to 9/11 again, do you remember exactly where you were when you first heard the news? I do. I was in a fifth grade classroom. The teacher sat the whole class down, explained that something very bad had happened in New York, and that parents would be coming to pick us up very soon.
I didn’t understand the magnitude of it at the time, but that memory of sitting down in that classroom is permanently burned into my brain.
While my girlfriend was born years after the events of Chernobyl, the Ukrainian culture burns it into their brain at a young age—Chernobyl is bad, scary, and to be avoided at all costs. Her friends jaws dropped to the floor in shock when she told them. She still won’t tell her parents (though it’s probably only a matter of time before I spill the beans).
I have no doubts that her parents know exactly where they were that day that it happened. That memory is probably burned into their head, as well. And it’s passed on to the younger generations, who all think it is insane that people actually go to Chernobyl as a form of tourism.
The Long-Term Effects
I’d need far more than this article to sum up the economic and political impacts that Chernobyl had on Ukraine and Belarus. The Soviet Union basically had to go bankrupt in an attempt to contain and decontaminate the area. Of course, it disbanded just five years later in 1991.
The spending on the issue continues to today. A new sarcophagus was just installed that should prevent any radioactive leaking for a hundred years. It’s absolutely massive, and crazy to witness in-person.
Of course, Ukraine is a bit of an economic disaster right now. If you have access to any currency but the local one, your money will go very far.
While, in my humble opinion, it would be wise to place the blame on the current crisis on Chernobyl, undoubtedly there are still some effects. It seems to be a place that just can’t seem to quite break out of the economic slump and truly prosper.
Closing Thoughts And Advice
If you’re in Kiev, it’s definitely worth going to Chernobyl. It’s a long day, a bit depressing, and eye-opening. Here are a few tips I’d recommend.
Book a shorter tour.
The company I booked with was an all-day event. We left the Kiev bus station at 7:15am and didn’t arrive back until nearly 9:00pm. It takes nearly two hours each way via bus. On top of it, this tour stopped every ten minutes in the outskirt towns. We’d walk around and see the ghost towns. There were just too many of them. After the first two they all began to look the same.
We didn’t arrive at the reactor and Pripyat until well into the afternoon. Given the benefit of hindsight, I would have preferred to take one of the shorter tours that promised to have us home at 6:00pm. They likely would have done less of the outskirt tours and had a more straightforward path to the bigger items.
The language situation, pricing, etc.
The tour guides all seem to speak excellent English. If money matters and you speak Russian, you can take a tour for 30-40% of the cost they charge for the English tour. If you bring a local or student along, there’s further discounts.
For the record, my cost was $119 as a non-student, non-citizen, English speaker.
Make sure you’re well stocked with water and snacks. Our bus stopped at a convenience store on the way, but no guarantees they all do. The meal they serve in the Chernobyl cafeteria is pretty lackluster, so come prepared.
Oh, and don’t forget your passport—the security and process at Chernobyl is far more extreme than any airport.