A trip to Chernobyl: a haunting tour of Ukraine’s radioactive crumbling ghost town

Pripyat's ruined swimming pool in Chernobyl. Picture: Dominika Trelinska.

Pripyat's ruined swimming pool in Chernobyl. Picture: Dominika Trelinska. - Credit: Archant

Marianne Gray visits the once pretty town of Pripyat to witness the fallout from the world’s worst nuclear reactor catastrophe and finds ‘a paradise turned to hell on earth’

I first went to Kiev, the elegant 19th Century capital of Ukraine, 15 years ago and saw the Chernobyl Museum.

That was 15 years after the nuclear disaster when several blasts brought down Reactor No. 4 of the nuclear power plant.

It was the 20th Century’s gravest technological catastrophe with 50 million curies (Ci) of radioactivity released into the atmosphere.

Four hundred and eighty five villages and towns were wiped out. The number of people dead is still uncalculated.

Now, 30 years after the disaster, you can go into the toxic wasteland that is the ‘radio active exclusion zone’ but not alone. You have to join a tour. And so I did, travelling with nine others, to the Zone 60kms north of Kiev.

We went through various checkpoints (12 in all) and through contamination machines to check radiation exposure.

Most Read

If you don’t pass the test you become one of ‘them’ with the eyes that glow at night. Just like in the movies, but this time for real!

We had to wear long trousers, long-sleeved shirts, boots and not touch anything, including stray dogs. Dust is the enemy.

All over the place yellow triangular street signs with three red dots warned us of no-go high radiation areas.

When our little yellow Geiger counters bleeped loudly you had to back off fast.

A town was built in 1970 a few kilometers from the power plant to serve it. A five minute drive away, Pripyat, named after the local river, was lovely.

It had a hotel, cinema, school, hospital, blocks of flats, rows of cottages, supermarket, a fairground with a ferris wheel.

It was the Soviet Union’s ninth nuclear city.

The residents loved living there until, in 1986, they heard the bang and saw the flames when the concrete protecting the reactor cracked on April 27th and the 1,000 tonne roof blew off from a steam explosion.

Their pretty new town was enveloped in radioactive fog then it was blown to hell and gone.

The Zone had to be evacuated. For the next 10 days every inhabitant was taken in 1,200 buses to somewhere safe(r), possessions and pets left behind.

They were to start again in some other town. Moscow said little, preferring a cover-up. It was a matter of evacuate and be done.

We couldn’t stay in nuclear blasted Pripyat, so we slept-over in the town of Chernobyl where there are some rooms for workers. From there we set off to see Pripyat.

Welcome to a ghost town, unmaintained for 30 years and crumbling. Paradise turned to hell on earth.

Between lines of fresh green trees, small villages appeared flattened as grassy hills, abandoned houses in various states of decay peeped out between the branches, sometimes whole deserted apartment blocks were glimpsed.

Then the town, scarily desolate. The main square with the destroyed fountain and the overgrown silver birches.

The Soviet-era Palace of Culture was just broken wooden shelves and legless chairs.

The supersize pool with its diving boards and changing room, the hospital with its maternity ward, the nursery with its empty cots, ruined dolls and a wheel-less tricycle. Somebody piped up : ‘Just like Newcastle, the wheels have been nicked!’.

We laughed, uneasily, and picked our way through the school and the classroom with a picture of Lenin still on the wall, and the rusty dodgem cars in the funfair. It’s a mysterious place.

Nearby 2000 people still work on the nuclear reactors – six months on, six months off, somewhere else far away.

The current project is a vast steel sheath, a curved dome covering the entire plant of Reactor 4. 18,000 tonnes of metal alone is needed.

It’s a £1.3billion job funded by donations from various nations, and designed to contain concrete, radioactive dust, nuclear material, graphite, disintegrating walls and gamma rays.

The dome stops it spewing death again.

Large enough to encase Notre Dame cathedral it sparkles dazzlingly in the sun. The UK’s largest bird of prey, a white-tailed eagle, flew overhead, circling, spotting a possibly radiated mouse.

Men in bright yellow jackets rushed forward indicating to us not to take photos of the reactors.

The wind whistled in the trees. We all spoke in subdued voices. Grotesque yet fascinating, and contaminated forever.

Back on the bus we drove past a sign saying : ‘Drive as fast as you can’, heading back speedily to the buzz and energy of Kiev with her glorious churches and elegant houses.

We want to get home, clean the dust off our boots and have a long, hot, cleansing shower.

The Zone, Chernobyl, is a place I’ll never forget and I’m so grateful to have been there. But I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back to Pripyat.

Maybe one day I’ll go back to trek with the wolves, the deer and big brown bears they say live in the zone’s forests.

Maybe to watch the silvery sheath being slid over the remains of Reactor 4. But I’m not at all sure.

Regent Holidays do two trips a year to Chernobyl. The next is in September. regentholidays.co.uk