Chernobyl: Inside the death zone
We are walking through an abandoned campsite when the alarm on my Geiger counter goes off. The small hand-held machine detects radiation hotspots, and carrying one is useful inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
The screen display shows a reading of 1.6 units (mSv) and represents the highest amount of radiation we have so far encountered on our trip. Most of the radiation since the 1986 nuclear disaster has soaked into the ground and the alarm's piercing sound grows more intense as I lower the machine towards my feet. The reading races suddenly to 1.9, then 2.5, and 2.9.
"It is going to hit three," says a colleague with a sense of trepidation. The alarm's intensity grows, its sound becoming more piercing, more worrying.
On the way here we discovered normal radiation levels in Kiev stand at about 0.15 units. This is harmless. However, we are now standing less than 10km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the level of radiation is 20 times higher than normal. We have no idea if this corner of forest beside a disused children's playground is dangerous or if such levels of radiation have long-term side effects.
We are faced with a dilemma. Do we stay and satisfy a sense of curiosity to see if we can get an accurate reading? After all, nobody can come here with a sense of fear. This is not your average package holiday.
Our second option is to run to the sanctuary of our bus and trusty tour guide Serhii Uzlov with the hope that our find is, somehow, both significant and safe?
We opt to stay.
"If it was dangerous Serhii would not have brought us here," is my effort to ease my colleague's concern. In truth, it is an attempt to reassure myself.
As the Geiger counter display continues to rise our courage dips. It hits 3.13 and then 3.21.
We decide we have had our fill of adrenaline. We rush to Serhii armed with questions and a sense of 'look-what-we-found' accomplishment and dread.
"What did the meter say?" he asks.
He hesitates. "3.21?"
"Erm, no. This is OK. If it is higher than five then we start to think about it."
Serhii was nothing but a fount of knowledge after we crossed into an exclusion zone at an armed checkpoint 30km from the focal point of the disaster. Yet, his words have done little to reassure us.
"There are some hotspots with high concentration of radiation inside the 10km zone," he says.
"They are special zones but we cannot enter them because they are fenced. The reactor and storage facilities are [also] fenced."
These fences seem few and far between. The access tour groups are given in the radiation-soaked area is surprising and makes our trip worthwhile. We come within yards of the French-designed sarcophagus that covers the nuclear power plant. The huge metal box is designed to contain the most harmful radiation that still seeps from the destroyed plant. It carries an aura, a sense of dreadful loss.
More than 600,000 people were directly or indirectly affected by the disaster. Calculating the death toll is complicated but most sources agree that thousands of people died as a result of the blast.
Instead of becoming a source of energy in Eastern Europe the site is now a tourist attraction. Like Auschwitz or Ground Zero, its popularity among tour groups has grown in recent years with an uptake in 'dark tourism' - where people visit places associated with death and tragedy. However, the tours here are carefully managed and only take place now after years of cautious negotiation with government to ensure visitors are safe and no further harm comes to the area. It is heavily guarded with soldiers who brandish machine guns.
A 30km exclusion zone has been set up around the reactor, and visitors have their passports checked on entry. There is also a 10km zone with further checks. Both outposts have airport-security style scanners to detect if people are carrying traces of radiation.
Our first day in Ukraine was like any other city break. Kiev is a sprawling, bustling, typically Eastern European capital and best explored on foot. Our jaunt takes us to onion-domed cathedrals and baroque churches. Chicken kievs are a must that night for dinner and many restaurants have their own unique flavours of vodka. Some are sweet and fruity but others, such as a horseradish variety, are surprisingly tasty.
The next day we enter Chernobyl's exclusion zone and expect to be greeted by a sense of eerie gloom or dread. Instead, we are met by two wild dogs who are determined to make friends with us in the hope of securing some scraps of food. Locals estimate there are more than 200 dogs living in the exclusion zone. Humans bring their best source of food and stay close to the checkpoints or site tours stop at. Because of this they maintain an unexpected presence.
A handful of people also live here illegally. They returned years after the area was evacuated and are happier in their homes than elsewhere.
After our brush with radiation we retreat to the sanctuary of our accommodation in the village of Chernobyl. The village from which the disaster gets its name is now an administrative centre from where the exclusion zone is run. There are a few small offices, a shop and hostels or guest houses for staff and visitors. The food and accommodation is basic but acceptable.
Google tells us our encounter was no worse than undergoing a CT scan or a couple of X-rays. Serhii tells us it would also be a minor foray compared to what would follow.
The next morning we travel to Pripyat, a city built near the reactor and the scene of a huge evacuation in the days after the catastrophe - 50,000 people once lived and worked here but now it is a series of chilling empty buildings. It is the home to the iconic ferris wheel, swimming pools and abandoned Soviet-era apartment blocks that have been immortalised in everything from movies, to photographs to computer games in the years since. Its schools, supermarkets and towering office blocks have become mines for tourists combing the world's most toxic ghost town.
Before we leave, Serhii guides us towards an old hospital. This is where all of those caught up in the disastrous explosion were brought for treatment. As we step through a derelict doorway he points to a piece of material on a work bench. The Geiger counter in his hand is already raging.
"This is a piece of clothing from one of the firemen who rushed to the scene," he explains.
"He was hit by the radiation."
The display on the Geiger counter reads 55 and is still rising. This is more than 300 times above normal and 17 times higher than the pocket of radiation we ran away from the day before.
"On the night this man was brought here the reading was above 7,000," says Serhii.
"He had no chance."
Workers at the Chernobyl plant had been exposed to 6,000 units in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Everyone who experienced such a dose was dead within weeks. We retreat to our bus again, this time less concerned about our foray with the radiation.
As we pass the 10km outpost on the way back to Kiev, we go through the radiation scanner and get the all clear. But something else has stayed with us - a relief that we were not there when Chernobyl hit the headlines.
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
Kiev, home of the famous chicken dish, is packed with history, scenery and good food. Varieties of lard (cured pork) on a dense bread washed down with horseradish vodka is a must.
Secret radar base
Within Chernobyl’s exclusion zone is the Duga radar base that was kept secret for years. It houses an 800m long, 150m high steel structure used by the Soviets during the Cold War to detect foreign missiles.
Explore offers a four-night Discover Chernobyl short break that combines three nights in Kiev with a night in the Exclusion zone. The trip includes a walking tour of Kiev with an opportunity to visit onion-domed churches, historic sites and the Motherland monument, a 100m high statue honouring heroes of the Soviet Union.
Chernobyl and the exclusion zone is a two hour drive from Kiev.
Land only prices start from €719 per person, including some meals, transport, the services of an Explore tour leader and an official Exclusion zone guide. Flight prices vary depending on demand and season.
Wayne flew from Dublin to Kiev via a short stopover in Amsterdam, with a return flight via Paris. Contact Explore: +44 1252 884 723 or visit explore.co.uk.
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