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Entering the dragon’s lair: a tour of Chornobyl

A two-hour drive north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv lies the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, site of the worst nuclear accident ever recorded and recently back in the spotlight in the acclaimed HBO/Sky series Chernobyl.

In the aftermath of a reactor explosion in 1986, cities and villages were abandoned. Decades on, tourists can visit Chernobyl (or Chornobyl as it's called here) to find an eerie landscape of crumbling buildings being reclaimed by nature. It’s a prime example of dark tourism.

In the foreground is a concrete memorial to the Chernobyl disaster, depicting two hands cupped together around a miniature of Reactor 4; behind the memorial is the huge grey arch of the New Safe Confinement structure that encloses the remains of Reactor 4.
The New Safe Confinement structure around the remains of Reactor 4 at Chernobyl © Olga Vladimirova / Shutterstock

Not that the authorities in Ukraine take such tourism lightly. As our tour group takes photos of information boards outside the barricaded entrance to the Exclusion Zone located 30km from the reactor site, we’re warned by our guide not to photograph the checkpoint itself. Although it’s a beautiful sunny day, there’s tension in the air, a sense of anticipation and uncertainty about what we might find within this chunk of Ukraine emptied by the disaster.

On 26 April 1986, Reactor 4 of the nuclear power complex exploded. Over the ensuing days, police, firemen, the military and other emergency workers struggled desperately to contain the unleashed radiation of the broken reactor core. It was 36 hours after the accident that the inhabitants of nearby settlements were hastily evacuated, never to return.

A guide walks across tarmac towards the derelict Palace of Culture in Pripyat; tress are growing in front of and within the pillared concrete structure, which has a large sign in Ukrainian script on its roof.
Guide at the derelict Palace of Culture in Pripyat © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

Now, more than 30 years after the crisis, we’re passing into the zone, having shown our passports to the guards. Group tours are the only way to visit Chernobyl. The tour company I’m hosted by, Chernobyl Tour, was founded by Sergii Mirnyi. In 1986 Mirnyi was a radiation surveillance officer involved in investigating the aftermath of the disaster. He later turned this knowledge toward guiding visitors through the area. Given the composition of our tour group – aside from me there are four young travellers, from New Zealand, the UK and the USA – I get the feeling this is seen as an adventurous travel option.

Our guide for the two-day tour, Alex, briefs us with a long list of cautions, including not sitting on the ground and not picking mushrooms. We then visit the remains of the village of Zalissa with its collapsed, overgrown houses. This is the first opportunity to test the dosimeters we’ve all been given, displaying the current radiation level. It’s a reassuring item to have, even if it does occasionally beep as radiation rises marginally above normal background levels.

Monument to emergency workers outside Chernobyl, with concrete sculptures of firefighters with hoses tackling the explosion.
Monument to emergency workers outside Chernobyl © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

We continue to the city of Chernobyl itself, home to 15,000 inhabitants before the accident. Surprisingly, it’s still a working town. Though large areas have been abandoned, the core of the city has been repurposed as a service centre for those working within the Exclusion Zone. In and around the city are monuments which mark the human cost of the meltdown: one commemorates the emergency workers who fought the disaster, many losing their lives to radiation poisoning. A path through a park is lined with road signs depicting the name of each abandoned village, beneath a striking metal statue of an angel. Nearby is a collection of robot vehicles used in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, themselves overwhelmed by radiation.

But it’s the ruins of the past that have the greatest emotional impact, and nowhere more so than in Pripyat. A modern city of 50,000 people, it was closest to the reactor and has remained officially empty, within an even stricter 10km-wide inner zone. Apparently there are people living in this zone, known as self-settlers, but we don’t meet any today. Nor do we see many animals, beyond occasional birds and the stray dogs hanging around the checkpoints. Alex tells us the local animals sense and avoid radioactive wild fruit in a way humans cannot, but I’m unsure how true this might be.

A concrete sign in Ukrainian script that translates as "Pripyat 1970", when the city was founded; wreaths and flowers are arrayed beneath it and a radiation warning sign stands next to it.
Welcome to Pripyat, founded in 1970 © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

Dropped off at the former main square, we leave behind the comfort of the bus for a walk through Pripyat’s overgrown public spaces. As it was founded in 1970 to serve the nuclear power plant, its civic buildings are uniformly modern and spaced well apart. This is somehow creepier than a town of forlorn older structures; there’s a sense that time stopped one day and never resumed.

Pripyat’s grand Palace of Culture is a mess of smashed glass and broken tiles. In an alcove at the rear of the building, placards of communist bigwigs from the Soviet era have been propped up. It’s the first hint that a certain amount of theatricality has been employed in the zone for visitors: exercise books open on a school desk, for example. Still, the city is eerie enough to transcend any tinkering. Beyond the Palace of Culture is the amusement park which featured heavily in coverage of the disaster’s 30th anniversary. Its rusting dodgem cars and towering Ferris wheel are unforgettable – they say something about the loss of childish innocence that’s very moving.

Decaying yellow and blue dodgem cars in Pripyat amusement park, with weeds growing between them and trees in the background.
Decaying dodgem cars in Pripyat amusement park © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

It’s at this point I realise there are hazards in the zone beyond radiation. Dotted around Pripyat are open manholes and random debris, with no safety barriers. This is a tour best suited to able-bodied and relatively fit people, with sharp observation skills.

At the end of the day, having visited an overgrown stadium, a mouldering waterside cafe and a school scattered with gas masks, we transfer to a basic Soviet-era hotel in Chernobyl. It’s nothing fancy – shared bathrooms, ‘eat what you’re given’ catering – but it’s comfortable enough for one night.

Abandoned radar installation in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, resembling a huge scaffolding unit made of lots of grey pipes and brown pillars.
Abandoned radar installation in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

The next day we visit a site that was a closely held secret in Soviet times. Reached via a long side road lined with concrete slabs, the Duga-1 radar installation was designed to detect incoming nuclear missiles. Isolated within the forest, it’s a strange place, the vast radar array creaking as it flexes in the wind.

Back near Pripyat, we walk along a railway line and into the base of a huge unfinished nuclear cooling tower. The interior is immense; way above us is its circular mouth, framing blue sky and the occasional bird. As we walk through the vast space, I’m surprised to find a mural of a masked doctor recently painted by Australian artist Guido van Helten.

Soviet-era sign outside Chernobyl, with a depiction of the power plant in yellow on a white wall alongside blue script and a red hammer and sickle.
Soviet-era sign outside Chernobyl © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

After lunch at the cafeteria serving reactor site workers, it’s time for the finale – meeting the ‘sleeping dragon’, as the Reactor 4 site has been called. From the monument which marked the 20th anniversary of the accident, we have a clear view of the huge arch-shaped New Safe Confinement shelter that in 2016 was slid over the concrete ‘sarcophagus’ which in turn covers the original breached building. The shelter is designed to contain the threat of nuclear contamination into the foreseeable future. A cage for the sleeping dragon, for at least a hundred years.

Tim Richards travelled to Chernobyl with Chernobyl Tour. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

This article was first published in 2016 and was updated in June 2019.