[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 31.05.2008]

At precisely 01:23am on 26 April 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union exploded, causing the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world. Large areas of current-day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were severely contaminated by the intense radiation and nuclear fallout, leading to the evacuation and resettlement of over 300,000 people. Twenty-two years on, the world has largely forgotten the largest man-made environmental disaster of the 20th century, but in the Ukraine neither the mental nor physical scars have fully healed.

Yesterday I stood not 50 metres from Reactor #4, the needle of my Geiger counter shrieking and leaping like a maniacal leprechaun with an angry rattlesnake down his green velours dungarees. The burning question: what was I doing there?

The self-styled ‘Weirdest Tour in the World’ had started off with the usual backpacker recipe,

*** Open Culinary Interlude ***

Eastern European Tour Group
Preparation: 8 – 10 hours
Serves 9 people, not including driver and tour guide

Ingredients:

4 x Brits – three Londoners & one Mancunian with chip on shoulder about life in the north, the older gentleman bearing a strong resemblance to Hannibal from The A-Team.
3 x Canadians Рpreferably Québecois, each with symmetrically positioned maple leaf patch on backpack.
1 x Australian – effing and blinding for first hour while describing Great Barrier Reef and home town, then snoring rhythmically in haze of vodka fumes.
1 x Irishman – quiet and mysterious, attracting immediate interest from Canadian girls.

Pour into one minivan, shake and bounce about on potholed Ukrainian road for two hours, creating heavenly aroma of hangover halitosis and Bacon & Egg McMuffin breakfast odours oozing through sweaty pores.

Serve irritably as group discovers road time is double that stated in brochure at hostel.

*** Close Culinary Interlude ***

and as we sped (for literary effect only, plodded would be more accurate) through the lush Ukrainian forest, blue skies and blazing sunshine above our heads, the mood was more Paddington’s Grand Day Out than Thyroid Cancer Exclusion Zone. To answer my own burning question, I was curious to test my usual moral ambivalence by going on a tour described by guidebooks and fellow travellers alike as moving, distressing, disturbing and a further Thesaurus-truckload of similar adjectives. Would I, the heartless one, feel any of the above emotions?

Truth be told, it was impossible to feel anything more than voyeuristic curiosity in the now miltary-populated town of Chernobyl and at the plant iteself. Our interpreter’s liberal use of the word ‘stuff’ (eg. “The fallout was 30 to 40 times more serious than Hiroshima and stuff…” or “They added stuff to the Uranium-235 and that made it melt…” – what did they add, a slice of Kraft processed cheddar?), the aforementioned good weather and the fact that the Red Forest (so -called because of the ginger-brown colour of the 10km radius of pine trees that died from absorbing high levels of radiation) had been replaced by lush green vegetation all detracted from the tragic events that had occurred here. That each and every single one of us was more obssessed with obtaining the highest reading on the Geiger counter lent an even more jokey element to what ought to have been a sombre and serious affair (and yes, of course it was only-child-me-me-me with a whopping 729 micro-roentgens).

It was only when a book released to commemorate the 10 year anniversary in 1996 was passed around that we began to appreciate the enormity of the catastrophe and its repercussions. As I flicked through photos showing firefighters equipped with fire aprons only (aprons!!!) to fight the chemical fires in the immediate aftermath of the explosion or of radiation burns victims with their skins flayed and torn to shreds, I felt a tightening in my chest. Incidentally of the 56 deaths attributed directly to the accident, 47 were firefighters and accident workers and 9 children with thyroid cancer, although, in a textbook display of the ills of the soviet propaganda machine, doctors were forbidden from recording “Death by Radiation” as a death verdict in order to keep the number of ‘real’ casualties down. Truly sickening. I bought the book to serve as a reminder of the bravery of the emergency services and the true horrors now disguised by new trees and abundant flora and fauna.

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The kind of trip that leaves you with a warm glow

If the book showed us a side of the events that few people know of, then the next part of our tour conveyed a message blunter than the billboards of Times Square. The city of Pripyat, not Chernobyl, was the closest to the reactor and therefore the worst affected. The whole city was evacuated in 72 hours, with a 40km long caravan of buses carrying all 50,000 inhabitants to pastures and lives new. Schoolbooks and a teddy bear at the school, a broken projector with filmreel in the cultural centre, all artifacts showing the panic and urgency of this forced migration. In the centre of the ghost city stands the rusting hulk of a large ferris wheel, visible from miles around, all the more poignant since it did not manage to complete one single rotation, its public opening due three days after the accident.

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Wheel of misfortune

This was not moving, this was not distressing, this was not even destruction, this was sheer postapocalyptic desolation. I felt unsettled and even obscene standing on the roof of the abandoned hotel looking down at what had once been a thriving community living in the shadow of its employer and executioner. I held my breath irrationally, radiation was minimal but I did not even want to breathe the air in this place truly forsaken by God, Buddha, Allah and all their furry friends. I felt like an extra in 28 Days Later (the zombie movie set in London, not 28 Days, the crap Sandra Bullock rehab romance schmaltzfest I hired by mistake the first time around).

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Hotel Polissya in Pripyat

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Check out time is RIGHT NOW!

There was a lot more to the tour, but this just about covers its mental impact on me. The physical aspect is another matter altogether. The level of radiation we were exposed to was high enough to cause concern, but only over an extended period of time. Many Ukrainians we met assured us that we would sprout a third leg within the week and that we were madder than an army of March Hares on crystal meth for going into the exclusion zone. It certainly plays on your mind though, and we duly followed the base commander’s advice in drinking alcohol in order to accelerate our metabolism and flush the radiation out of our bodies. I am not sure that he had 2 litres of vodka over 3 hours of playing Shithead in mind, but hey ho, better safe than sorry…

For further information on the Chernobyl Disaster, Wikipedia has a thorough account of the event and how it has affected the Ukrainian psyche and identity. I have come away from what I had initially seen as a form of extreme tourism with a greater understanding of one of the most important events to happen in my lifetime. I now also have an easy answer to the “What is the strangest place you have ever had a beer?” question. It gave me a warm glow.

You will find more photos of my trip to Chernobyl in the following Facebook album (friends only).

[Author’s note, 12 years on: looking back, this still stands out as one of my most surreal travel experiences…]

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