Our arrival in the Exclusion Zone

It’s 07:00 and I’m battling the worst hangover in living memory. Last night Darren and I decided to acclimatise for today’s trip to the Ukraine by drinking our bodyweight in Vodka, and now my head feels like there are two Frenchmen living in it. I find myself questioning whether what we’re about to do is really such a good idea, but it’s too late to back out. Our BA flight is smooth and efficient, a symbol of the familiarity and comfort we’d soon be leaving behind as we step into a country that’s as intriguing as it is odd; the last time I was here was as best man at a local wedding, where we drank a 14 course meal and ate pickled eyebrows.

Wide shot of a deserted road to the power plant on horizon, some brown horses on frame right
Wild Prezevalski’s Horses graze by the roadside

Kiev’s airport hadn’t changed much. The chaotic arrivals hall at Boryspil International was still a bright place full of chain-smoking men in black leather jackets with dark glasses. A similar passenger had delayed our last flight out of Lviv years ago, ending a five hour unexplained postponement with his equally unexplained arrival, at which point the ageing Antonov was permitted to splutter into life. It’s just the way things work here – don’t ask or you’ll get.

The two fellas meeting us don’t look any more official, but at least Sacha and his driver aren’t wearing shades. We shake hands, they take our cases to a nondescript Korean family car, and just like that we’re spat onto a two lane motorway bursting away from Kiev like sparks from a firework. Our driver is silent, but Sacha speaks fairly good English and gives us some explanation of what we can expect from our trip. We’ll need to pass a number of checkpoints along the way, where everybody’s passports will be cross-referenced with a document issued specifically for us by a government agency this morning. At the 30km exclusion zone this process is carried out by armed guards while we wait in the car.

Sacha and his driver seem to be regular faces here and there’s no sign of tension, but I’m still a little shell-shocked by the bureaucracy and the automatic weapons, and decline the offer of photographing the check-point “as long as you don’t get the guards or police”. Sacha also gives us a few house rules that we need to observe during our two day private tour; no smoking, eating or drinking outdoors, don’t touch anything, especially organic matter such as plants or fungus, and don’t go anywhere without our guide, who in turn won’t go anywhere without his personal dosimeter. No explanation is offered as to why the petrol station we’ve just stopped at is staffed by a bunny-girl.

We arrive in Chornobyl (the indigenous name of the town – only the power station is referred to as Chernobyl, or ChNPP) at 18:00 and are shown to our accommodation, a two storey hotel belonging to Chernobyl InterInform Agency – the CII. It’s basic but clean, and the furnishings remind me of growing up in East Germany. We’ve a narrow room with twin beds which is linked to another containing a desk and a three piece suite. There’s an en-suite shower too, and we only find out on our second night that the water will eventually run hot if left long enough, where “long enough” is equivalent to the amount of time it takes to enjoy two cold showers.

After an hour to settle in, Sacha escorts us on foot to the canteen, a small but tastefully furnished room where a table for two awaits us. I can tell Darren isn’t used to the local cuisine; watery potato broth with noodles, slices of nondescript meat, and half a loaf of sliced white bread. This isn’t bad food – I grew up on similar stuff and millions of people in Europe are eating the same right now – but if you’re not used to it I suppose it can be a bit of a shock. Everything edible has to be brought into the zone and we’re aware of the privilege that has been extended to us through this meal, yet the large jug of compot is something of a throw-back. I don’t recognise the reddish-brown liquid inside but it smells exactly like my grandma’s jar of pipe tobacco. I’m simultaneously warmed by my own nostalgia and repelled by the thought of drinking it.

Towards the end of the meal we’re joined by Nick, a British PhD student who’s been in the zone for about 6 months now, and whose knowledge gives us an interesting perspective on many things we’ve learnt through our own research. We’re deep in conversation when our guide joins us and shows us the way to the grocery store where he buys us some bottled water before taking us the way back to the hotel.

At the time of writing it’s impossible to enter the exclusion zone without a government-approved escort, and although anyone can book a space on a group tour from a number of operators your excursion will ultimately be fulfilled by one company, Solo-East Travel. Nick is in the process of interviewing Yuri and Sergei, two of Solo-East’s senior staff when we arrive back at base, and we’re granted the opportunity of sitting in on the interview and taking notes. It’s a privilege to hear these two experts speak candidly about the accident and life in the zone today, and much of what we learnt in that short hour gave us new angles on existing knowledge as well as one or two insights which we weren’t expecting. We join our hosts in drinking a bizarre type of instant tea; pea-sized pellets of dried material unfold into shredded leaves when hot water is added, making for a delicious and unexpectedly strong brew. It takes us a while to get the pellets-to-water ratio right, and I’m beginning to suspect we’re as entertaining to Sergei and Yuri as they are to us. The room we’re in is where Solo-East hold their usual pre-tour talks, and a large wall is covered with old photos, charts, and newspaper clippings about the dramatic events of April 26th, 1986.

Nick appears pleased with the interview and we walk back to the grocery store where he buys us beers. On the way, we get the beginner’s 101 on radiation; there are several different types, chiefly characterised by their rate of decay and their ability to penetrate various substances. Most of the isotopes spewed into the atmosphere by Chernobyl (like iodine-131 and caesium-137) emit Gamma radiation, which has the ability to penetrate air and human tissue and is relatively easy to detect. Gamma is electromagnetic radiation, like light and radio waves, and decays quickly. Beta radiation is less penetrating and won’t go far into human tissue, but decays slower than Gamma. The real one to watch out for is Alpha radiation. Alpha has the slowest rate of decay and doesn’t penetrate human tissue at all, which means that if you’re unlucky enough to ingest a “hot particle” it will slowly cause internal damage while remaining undetectable to conventional scanners. There’s still plenty of Alpha radiation floating about – hence the no eating / drinking / smoking rule.

We let all this sink in silently while admiring the general store. It’s a low, single-storey building with a glass wall and art-deco signs that give clue to it’s former life as a cafe / bar. Inside are several shelves sparsely stacked with common household goods, and a glass counter filled with meat, dried fish, and a luminous substance that could well have been cheese. Several people are working the evening shift and I should have made an effort to interact with them more but I’ll be honest: it was a long, bizarre day and I was really looking forward to those beers.

In an effort to digest both Nick’s information and the aforementioned meal we decided to take an unaccompanied stroll around Chornobyl at dusk, alone for the first time with the city and our cameras. It was incredibly surreal. Normally we move furtively around abandoned properties, yet here we were in an abandoned city. A city. And not just any city, one that’s synonymous with the single biggest nuclear disaster in human history. Alone. Legally. With our cameras.

We walked about for a couple of hours, clicking away at the forlorn empty streets, the leafy boulevards lined with tree-stricken villas and the eerie deserted squares, our feelings a mixture of elation at hitting the dereliction jackpot, and sadness brought on by so much human displacement. We’d been in the zone a little over 4 hours and already it was apparent that this would be totally different to anything we’d seen or done before.

We arrived back at base as darkness fell and noticed that the handy upright scales in the entrance hall, the same scales which wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-eighties school nurses’s room, were actually a device where you could measure the amount of radiation you’d taken onboard that day. With that in mind it was time for bed.