Chernobyl: A Vacation Hotspot Unlike Any Other
Tourists and urban explorers are going crazy over haunting tours of the radioactive site.
All photos by Ronnie Bassbär
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, the reactor at Chernobyl exploded during a routine maintenance test, setting off a shining plume of smoke that made the sky glow for miles. Residents in the area would later describe the rainbow light from the deadly explosion as the most sublime vision they would ever see. Within minutes, workers battling their way through fires, burning asphalt, and a crumbling reactor were exposed to more radiation than any body can take in a lifetime. Thirty-six hours later, hundreds of exposed villages were asked to evacuate the surrounding area, under the impression that they would soon return. In days, the fallout had spread across thousands of square miles in Europe.
For nearly 30 years the evacuated area around Chernobyl, which included the concrete city of Pripyat, has remained unpeopled, uninhabited, and—for the most part—untouched. But in 2011, the Ukrainian government stated that it would officially allow visitors to tour the 30-kilometer zone of contaminated land, an area four times the size of New York City known as the "Zone of Alienation." Although many curious about the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster had visited the area prior to this announcement, this news quickly spread to the masses, who booked trips through one of the growing number of private tour companies. When Dylan Harris founded Lupine Travel in 2007, his was one of three companies touring the zone, and he estimated an average of 10 people visited the zone every month with his company. But since 2011, upwards of 10,000 people visit each year, according to estimates provided by tour operators who spoke with VICE.
Their brochures advertise the trip as having all of the innocuous thrills of a haunted house and all of the invisible danger of a deeply irradiated environment stripped of everyday human life forms. No doubt, this combination of ruinous landscapes and extreme radiation levels has kept the nuclear tourism industry thriving. Exact numbers are hard to come by, as there are at least two dozen national and international operating tours and the Chernobyl Zone Administration controls admission to the zone. Yuri Kovalchyk, a spokesperson for Chernobyl Tours from UkrainianWeb, said that summer is without a doubt the busiest season, although the zone's many prodigious photographers love to come in the fall, when leaves don't obstruct the views.
Strange sounds populate the Zone: a lack of birdsong, glass crunching underfoot, cameras constantly clicking beneath the beeps of Geiger counters. Visitors sometimes carry personal counters, beeping at levels 20 times higher than average background radiation, along with their cameras, and eat lunch inside the former power plant's cafeteria. The experience even stays authentic at night, with bleak Soviet-style hotels in the zone.
But for all the true clichés about Chernobyl, myths continue to surround the summer vacation hotspot. VICE spoke with avid repeat visitors, experienced tour guides, and international radiation experts to debunk some of the major misconceptions about who visits the zone, why, and whether it's still safe to do so.
"Some people confuse the Chernobyl movies with the reality," Kovalchyk stated flatly. "These people might be disappointed."
READ & WATCH: Radioactive Man
Unsurprisingly, everyone's biggest fear about visiting Chernobyl is the radiation. An Italian insurance clerk by day, and host of Facebook's "ChernobylUpCloseandPersonal" page by night, Ronnie Bassbär says that before researching any health effects, he thought, "you go there, you die."
But contrary to this popular belief, it turns out that tourists have nothing to fear about the areas of the zone that they visit, according to radiation experts within the Ukraine and internationally. In the course of a typical Chernobyl tour, the radiation absorbed amounts to a few microsieverts per hour, which, tour guides are fond of pointing out, is far less exposure than you've already received flying across the Atlantic to get there." Of course, the Zone in its central part still has places with elevated radiation," explains the FAQ of the "official provider of Chernobyl exclusion zone tours," ChernobylWel.Com, "But if you follow the suggested route and the guides' directions, your visit to the Chernobyl zone and Pripyat town will be absolutely radiation-safe." Despite the fact that the existing concrete sarcophagus built to contain the reactor's radiation cracks, oozes, and leaks (with repairs set for completion by 2017—at the earliest), experts agree.
"If you don't eat the mushrooms, don't eat the berries, don't catch the wild boar and eat them, and just stick to the areas that tourists are allowed to go, it's not any problem at all," Dr. Keith Baverstock, the former director of the WHO's Radiation Protection Program told VICE, adding, "I've been there, and I would be happy to go there [again]." Other safety precautions to take when chilling around continuously leaking radiation include not eating, drinking, or smoking outdoors; not stepping off the path, showing bare skin, or letting your body or your belongings touch the ground.
Baverstock, who co-authored the UN's landmark 2002 report on the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, helped to bring the increase in thyroid cancer in Belarus to the world's attention. But he warns that many consequences of the radiation, including its psychosocial effects and the total incidence of cancers attributed to the fallout, are not fully known. Many who visit are surprised by the radiation's visible adverse effects, which appear less destructive than they expect.
Although many popular films and video games depict the zone as an empty post-apocalyptic wasteland, Chernobyl is still very much an active working town. It's even somewhat populous. A church still welcomes worshippers; tons of workers commute into the zone daily to decommission the power plant and build the reactor's new containment structure; and hundreds of people, despite the government's orders, have refused to leave. "It is basically like any other Ukrainian town, minus children and minus a lot of the entertainment venues," said Ronnie Bassbär.
Perhaps deterred by the traffic on the roads and the shops, locals known as "stalkers" regularly sneak into the more abandoned areas just outside of town to scavenge, hike, and swim in what appears to be a lush and teeming nature reserve in the heart of the zone.
A 2005 report by the Chernobyl Forum states that "the exclusion zone has paradoxically become a unique sanctuary for biodiversity." Scientists have described the wildlife in Chernobyl as thriving on the outside, with Przewalski's horses, elk, boar, wolves, and lynx all roaming the zone. But these scientists are unsure about what is happening on the inside, to the animals' DNA. Baverstock warned that the wildlife were not necessarily "having a major party," as scientists have discovered changes in the skull sizes of birds.
Dylan Harris, the founder of Lupine Travel, said that people are often surprised at how quickly nature has returned even to the contaminated city of Pripyat. "Each year," he said, "it is becoming more and more unrecognizable, as the concrete floors break up and trees and plants start to take over." Many of his tourists, he says, are urban explorers, meaning they enjoy seeking out and exploring modern ruins, finding beauty within their decay. In fact, all of the tourists interviewed for this article happened to be urban explorers of some kind, and all of them described Pripyat, an entire city frozen in time, as an urban explorer's dream.
Among the many preserved USSR relics, Pripyat's abandoned amusement park, set to open days after the disaster struck, is the most famous. Tourists often snap photos of its bright yellow Ferris wheel, now a darkly ironic symbol. Nearby, highly radioactive metalbumper cars sit unmoved, rusting. Towering over the edge of town, the vertical towers of the Soviet's Duga-3 radar system loom as relics of Cold War paranoia. The extremely powerful radar system, nicknamed "the steel yard" by NATO, was once used to distort European and American broadcast stations. Newspapers, school lessons, scattered medicine, an evaporated swimming pool, and children's clothes from 1986 are scattered around buildings, adding to the city's time capsule effect.
Urban explorers flock to the zone of alienation not to gawk at desolation but to understand the reality and experience of the nuclear catastrophe for themselves. Kovalchyk said that people who take UkrainianWeb's tours to the zone usually aren't satisfied by its abstracted, dystopic depictions in popular photos or movies. They are the kind of people, he said, who feel a need to see it "with their own eyes."
Visiting the zone had been on Janos Honkonen's bucket list for a long time. Ever since he was a kid in Finland, Honkonen was fascinated with "different sorts of post-[apocalyptic] scenarios, world without people-typesof settings, and modern ruins." Like many visitors who spoke with VICE, pop culture at the end of the Cold War fueled this fascination. Growing up in a world on the brink of mutually assured destruction, Janos watched 80s Armageddon films, read novels full of apocalyptic visions, and researched the scientific effects of radiation. Then the accident happened, turning Chernobyl into a household name—and something more in countries that experienced some of the fallout, like Finland.
Like Honkonen and so many of the tourists who visit Chernobyl, Ronnie Bassbär had always been fascinated by urban exploration in his home of Northern Italy, which, when combined with his innate interest in "decay, and anything morbid or out of the ordinary," made Pripyat seem like a place where "all my interests came together like nowhere else on the planet." But for Bassbär, who was five years old when the accident took place, Chernobyl had long seemed like a "bizarre phantom from my early childhood: a huge event that nobody knew very much about." He was shocked to find out that he could actually go there.
Bassbär and Honkonen both said that as soon as they heard that it was possible to visit the exclusion zone, they knew they had to get there. Honkonen visited in November of 2010 with SoloEast Travel and has plans to obtain a permit to the more restricted zones someday in the future. Bassbär made his first trip in the spring of 2012, through Lupine Travel, Harris's company. As soon as Bassbär came home, he made plans to go back. "I was hooked," he said. He has since returned to the zone seven times, spending a total of 42 days at Chernobyl. In between these trips, he read about the disaster and its aftermath, learning more and more about the exclusion zone's history.
Harris says that Bassbär and Honkonen's level of intense preparatory research and desire to return are hardly uncommon among those who take his tours to the zone. Unlike other "ruin porn" sites, Chernobyl attracts tourists with a deep interest in the biological, historical, and political effects of the tragedy, he said. Harris's clients skew male and millennial, with around 90 percent of bookings made by people between the ages of 25 and 40.
Kovalchyk also emphasized the serious educational mission of his company's tours over any sensational value they might claim. "Our visitors are mostly well-educated people with a concern in world issues and in Chernobyl, in particular," he explained. After all, every visitor likely does some research prior to traveling in order to feel safe about the effects of radiation. "It's not like someone on a tour is like 'Chernobyl, what is that?'"
Researchers who've studied those drawn to visit the sites of extreme disasters—what's often called "dark tourism"—told VICE that it's often out of a desire to more deeply process the events. The idea of dark tourism is that people turn to dystopias in order to reflect, engage, or commemorate with the historical value of death and tragedy, explained Franklin & Marshall business professor and dark tourist scholar Jeffrey Podoshen. "People tend to seek out disasters when they're afraid of seeing them happen in their own lives," Podoshen said. "That's definitely the case with Chernobyl."
Chernobyl, the former beacon of Soviet industry, and Pripyat, an abandoned model city, represent full visions of the alternate historical trajectory that so many cities and industries still standing today could just as easily have taken. Indeed, Honkonen recalled being struck by the eerie similarity of Pripyat to where he grew up in Finland. With its prefab apartment buildings and 80s aesthetic, Pripyat shockingly looked like the overgrown, destroyed inverse of his childhood home, Jyväskylä.
Andrew Gibson, an English freelance photographer who has toured the zone twice, said that although the "dark tourism" desolation is what draws people in, the fact that the zone is the result "of the biggest nuclear catastrophe the world has ever seen" quickly sobers any jovial holiday, apocalyptic, or video game comparisons. "You get so engrossed taking it all in that you barely interact with the others in your group until you're sat down for a meal," Gibson said. Like many visitors, he was hesitant to use the label dark tourism because of its sensationalist connotations, yet spoke of engaging with the area's historical gravity much in the same way Podoshen described it. "Life in Pripyat stopped in 1986 and however ravaged it seems," he said, "it is as close as you can get to a regime that no longer exists." He described the "incredibly powerful" feeling of being "virtually alone in a place that was once so full of life."
Kovalchyk agreed that "deep feelings" are common on his tours, ranging from shock to humiliation to concern to fascination.
On his later trips to the zone, Bassbär said he stood where helicopters landed to smother the fire, and wandered into former elementary school classrooms. He climbed the rooftops of the city's high-rises and tried to wrap his brain around the fact that "nobody lives there anymore."
"I'm not easily moved," he said, "but the first time I saw the rows of rusty little beds in a kindergarten dorm room, I was on the verge of tears. There is a profound melancholy about the place that is hard to put in words."
When Honkonen returned from the zone to Finland in 2010, summer was in full heat and it was hard to sleep. He recalled the days after his trip, spending nights looking at photos and reading the personal accounts of former inhabitants of Pripyat. "It may sound really corny," he said, "but I really left a piece of myself in there. It was a pretty profound experience."
But some fear that it might not stay this way for long.
As the military crisis in eastern Ukraine pushes the country off most travelers' radars and contained forest fires blaze within the zone, it's unclear if Chernobyl's ruinous allure will still draw thousands of photographers and travelers this summer. Lupine Travel, tours from UkranianWeb, and ChernobylWel.Com all said tour numbers had dropped rapidly in the past year and a half since the conflict began, with the latter citing figures by as much as 80 percent.
And two weeks ago, after the fires in Ukraine hit the forest less than a dozen kilometers from Chernobyl's power plant, inspectors marked a radiation spike in part of the irradiated exclusion zone. The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine found the air in the evacuated village of Polis'ke to be contaminated with ten times the lethal levels of cesium-137, but stated that the carcinogenic radiation released poses no extra danger to those living near the exclusion zone—so long as the wind doesn't change strength or direction. This marks the second forest fire to hit the region since late April, which was the first fire to burn the area in more than two decades.
Scientists told VICE News that these blazes may not be an anomaly but a trend, with climate change making fires more frequent. Harris says that while the situation is completely contained, his company is "monitoring the situation and will postpone tours if need be in the future."
Kovalchyk added that despite the fact that nothing was wrong with his tours "from any point of view" his company still "felt the drag."
Perhaps the downturn in visitors marks a good time to visit. Those who spoke to VICE about their visits described the traditional tours as too crowded for the wandering and exploration they hoped to pursue. Many said that they favored taking a self-guided or private tour for their second trip. Andrew Hunt, an English designer who visited in 2009, before the tours were as known, said he was surprised even then by how the city was "such a well worn tourist trail." "It felt a little like a museum attraction," he added, "which I thought was quite sad." A travel blogger describes the zone turning into any other tourist trap, with photographers constantly adjusting elements of the landscape to get their ideal snapshots. "If my group was in any way representative," he wrote, "then just imagine the cumulative effect of as many as 10,000 visitors interacting with the zone every year."
If you're looking for somewhere off the beaten path that's not too crowded, and haven't yet booked this year's summer vacation, Chernobyl might be a safe spot—for now. "Better sooner than later," Bassbär recommends, "The place is falling apart."